Ritual and Belief: Rites of the Anglo-Saxon Church

Oxford, July 7, 2000
"The Sign of the Cross"

chair: Simon Keynes, Cambridge University

"The Cross in Anglo-Saxon England: Sign, Signing and Performance"

Professor Sarah Larratt Keefer, Trent University, Ontario

There are three different ways that the Anglo-Saxons appear to perceive the cross: as static Object (a cross in a church), as ritual Gesture (the shaping of a cross for the purpose of sanctification or consecration), and as a performance that `inscribes' the design of the cross onto the body which is thus appropriated by the Self (self-signing or praying with arms outstretched). Evidence for each of these approaches may be found not only in the liturgy of the period but also within the literature, whether historical narrative or verse text. It is surely significant that all three aspects can be found within at least one literary text and at least one liturgical sequence. The focus of the paper lies on the evidence available, and on the ways in which these approaches interlink or develop one from another. Thus we should be able to acquire a clearer view of Anglo-Saxon aesthetics by understanding their appreciation of this most crucial of symbols.

"Cross-Referencing Liturgy and Charms: The Sign of the Cross as Ritual Protection"

Karen Louise Jolly, University of Hawai`i at Manoa

This paper examines the use of signing the cross in medicinal remedies as a reflection of popular religious practice, part of the synactic life of Anglo-Saxon Christians derived in part from liturgical use. The sign occurs as a blessing that unites words and actions to invoke the power of Christ's blood against all evil. Therefore the sign protects as well as empowers persons or objects. Making the sign of the cross can be a communal or individual performance, on one's own behalf or for another. It functions as a form of communication, between a person and God, between persons, or between a person and invisible forces.

Manuscript sources for these remedies, including the medicinal books Lacnunga and Leechbook, as well as marginal remedies from a variety of other manuscripts such as CCCC 41, yield a diverse range of uses of the cross that fall into clear categories. The cross appears in three forms: verbal (oral/aural or visual/written), action (gesture, ritual), and material (physical artifacts of or from crosses). All three of these forms in remedies indicates that the cross as a symbol has a kind of mana, since it either contains or brings out hidden virtues or power from God. The purposes of remedies that employ the cross fall into four types: protection (generally from poison or demonic attacks), exorcism (to drive out evil), healing (usually bleeding, fever, and poison), and finding lost or stolen items. Moreover, a fairly widespread tradition of such uses of the cross in Anglo-Saxon England, tied in some ways to Celtic traditions, is evident in the numerous variants and similarities between remedies and in comparison to prayers found in liturgical and devotional manuals.

Although it is tempting to call these uses of the cross "magic," such an argument proves reductionist and limits our appreciation of how Anglo-Saxon religious practice functioned. Rather than separating one use of the cross from another as either magical or religious, a deeper understanding is gained through seeing how interconnected these uses are and what they reveal about forms of spirituality in Anglo-Saxon England.

"The Sign of the Cross: Poetic Performance and Liturgical Practice"

Catherine E. Karkov, Miami University, Ohio

This paper will examine the act of signing the cross in the four poems of Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 11, a late-tenth or early-eleventh century manuscript containing the poems Genesis, Exodus, Daniel and Christ and Satan. There are two words used in the manuscript for `to bless', a term that implies but does not necessarily entail making the sign of the cross: gebletsian and gesegnian. Analysis of their distribution and the narrative contexts in which the two words are used suggests a clear distinction in meaning, with gebletsian meaning simply `to bless', and gesegnian `to sign with the cross'. However, both the iconography of the illustrations that accompany these passages, and the synaxes against which Anglo-Saxon readers would have understood them, complicate the picture somewhat and suggest a more subtle differentiation between the promise of the sign and its fulfillment.

The sign of the cross in the Junius 11 poems also has links to liturgical manuscripts and liturgical practices. The iconography of the images of blessing in Genesis is clearly influenced by representations of the harrowing of hell; and the blessings in the Old Testament poems may be designed to look forward to that particular New Testament event, recounted in the manuscript's final poem Christ and Satan. The use of gebletsian and gesegnian then become part of a dramatic and multi-voiced narrative structure that echoes back and forth across the four poems and gives them a distinctly performative quality. It is a structure and a tone that, as this paper will argue, may be related to innovations in the liturgical performances of the late Anglo-Saxon Church.