Sancta Crux/Halig Rod: The Cross in Anglo-Saxon England

Paper Sessions and Abstracts

from The International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo and The International Medieval Congress at Leeds

36th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, May 3-6, 2001

37th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, May 2-5, 2002

International Medieval Congress, Leeds, July 8-11, 2002

38th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, May 8-11, 2003


"Crosses and Conversion: The Iconography of the York Viking Coinage ca. 900," Mark Blackburn, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, The 2002 Richard Rawlinson Center Congress Speaker, 37th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, May 2-5, 2002

The coinage of the Scandinavian kingdom of York offers some remarkable insights into the politics, culture, organisation and economy of this short-lived state. The re-establishment of a mint in York c.895 after a thirty-year interval was a notable event, and the coins produced there during the first decade of operation, in the names of Kings Sigeferth and Cnut, are innovative in a number of respects, not least their designs and inscriptions. This is a large and well-organised coinage with some 40 different combinations of design. Cross motifs dominate, and the size and prominence of these leave the viewer in little doubt as to their importance to the designer. Their variety embraces the Greek cross, Cross-crosslet, Patriarchal cross, Christogram, Cross-on-steps, Small crosses or groups of four pellets in the field and Lozenge-shaped (i.e. cruciform) ‘O’s. Most of these designs do not appear to have been copied from other coin issues, but draw upon the stock of Christian iconography that was probably current in Northumbria at the time. The designs are complemented by the inscriptions. Some quote phases from the liturgy DNS DS REX, DNS DS O REX, MIRABILIA FECIT a practice not otherwise found on English coinage of the Anglo-Saxon period, although on the Carolingian coinage of Eudes (888-97) there are liturgical phrases which may have provided the inspiration for the York inscriptions. The most exceptional form of inscription, found in several types, is the arrangement of letters such that they have to be read in the order top-bottom-left-right, i.e. in a sequence that makes a sign of the cross. This occurs on no other coinage in any country or period, but it is paralleled on the Ruthwell Cross and in early medieval Italian art. The dominance of the Christian theme in design and legends and the energy and innovation with which it is presented suggests that this was a deliberate and important feature of the coinage. But who was responsible and what was the intention behind it? This is an overtly royal coinage, and its economic significance was such that the Scandinavian kings would not readily have alienated their right to control the mint. Yet it is reasonable to suppose that the archbishop both influenced the general policy and advised specifically on the designs. Indeed, the very survival of his office through the Scandinavian conquest and Archbishop Wulfhere’s documented associations with the York kings shows that the Church had a role in the Viking strategy. That is not to say that the coinage shows that the Scandinavians of York had been thoroughly converted by the late ninth century, but it does suggest that they recognised the political advantage of embracing one of the principal tenets of Western states in order that they might be accepted by their Anglo-Saxon, British and Carolingian neighbours.

"A Chip off the Rood: Early Anglo-Saxon Coins and the Cross," Anna Gannon, Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge Univ., 37th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, May 2-5, 2002

This paper examines the crosses found on the early Anglo-Saxon coins, from the inception of the coinage in the early seventh century, to the time of Offa (the end of the eighth century).

A development is noted between the earliest coin production, the gold issues - when the coins conformed to the well-established Merovingian prototype of bust and cross - and the later Silver Series (c. 710-750), a time of great inventive freedom, with over a hundred different designs. From the earliest phases of production, Anglo-Saxon designs are outstanding for their great elegance and wormanship. A correspondence between fine metalwork, manuscript illumination and coin design is evident, with patterns recalling favourite techniques such as cloisonné work or favouring the repetition of cross patterns as seen on illuminated carpet pages, which are believed to be devotional.

A remarkable change is observed in the Secondary phase, the Silver Series. The production has fewer crosses among its designs for reverses, however, these are very complex patterns formed by interlace and count on our visual awareness in recognising more than one cross in the design. One can in fact focus on subsidiary crosses made up by extra large pellets, representing the Five Wounds of Christ, or by ‘rosettes’ under the arms of the main crosses. It is argued that these ‘rosettes’ are actually conventional representations of bunches of grapes, so that it is suggested that the iconography of the coins presents a sophisticated double image of Salvation through the cross and the Eucharist alluded to by the bunches of grapes. This concept is also apparent in the vine-scroll of the Lowther cross.

The iconography of many of the coins of the Silver Series can be easily paralleled amongst the surviving sculptural heritage of Anglo-Saxon England, and in particular amongst the high crosses, not only in the interlace, as already mentioned, but in the many birds and animals finding food and refuge amongst the coils of vine-scrolls, as well as with human figures. In some cases one can even observe a precise correspondence between the two sides of a coin and the imagery of the high crosses. It is suggested that the coins functioned as ‘chips off the Rood’, miniature reproductions of well-known and liked motifs, possibly chosen on account of their auspicious connotations (as in the case of the bird-in-vine motif), and redemptive significance. Rather like relics, their diminutive size and reduced iconography did not impair the apotropaic power of the whole cross, and although coins are not themselves shaped like crosses, the fact that they so obviously carry such imagery testifies to the centrality of the Cross in Anglo-Saxon England.

A change of mood, as far as the coinage is concerned, is detected in the dramatic change apparent in the new coinage of King Offa ((757-96): here one can find many crosses, but these are now mere patterns and variations on standardised designs rather than witnesses to a great age of faith.

"The Graphic Cross: Marking Textual Space," Karen Jolly, Univ. of Hawaii Manoa, 36th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, May 3-6, 2001.

The act of reading in western literacy involves decoding alphabetic characters strung together in a horizontal line inscribed on a two-dimensional page. By habit and training, readers subconsciously transfer these combinations of letters into thought-word sequences, into language that bears some relationship to three-dimensional experience. In the midst of this reading process, it is easy to lose track of written characters as symbols, and of these complex symbol sets as multivalent signifiers. Consequently, when we as modern scholars encounter in the middle of a sentence in a medieval text a non-alphabetic symbol, such as a cross, we struggle to identify what it signifies. Is it, like an abbreviation mark, simply a truncation of a longer word, a shorthand invocation of an idea? Or is it an illustration, a piece of art embedded in the text to be read iconographically? Although the sign of the cross on the page may indeed refer to the word "cross" as well as to the object of the cross, it may also point to gestures and rituals in a time-bound three-dimensional performance that the textual graphic is meant to invoke. This paper examines the insertion of cross graphemes in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, particularly performative texts found in synactic, liturgical, and medicinal treatises. Cross graphemes are a known shorthand in liturgical and synactic texts as a prompt for the signing gesture, but they also occur in medicinal remedies for bleeding, fever, and various supernatural evils, such as elves, dwarves, and poisons. Although many of these cross graphemes occur singly, others are grouped in a diagram, sometimes with Alpha and Omega characters or with obscure multilingual formulas; in the case of palindromes, alphabetic text itself can be shaped into cross diagrams. Although written out in a linear fashion, some of these mixed language syllables with cross graphemes may be instructions for the design of a physical amulet or for the performance of some sanctifying ritual. This paper will argue that the presence of a cross grapheme serves not only as a verbal invocation of the cross as an object but also prompts a ritual gesture or performance as a devotional act that is integral to the remedy and its success.