Opening lines of Dream of the Rood (Vercelli Book) and the Ruthwell Cross, in honor of the coming Easter.
So I went and visited the Ruthwell Cross yesterday. Being a student of medieval literature, I had to see this cross. The runes on it translate to the same lines as a section of the Old English poem Dream of the Rood, which was found in the 10th century Vercelli book (Baker). It’s a poem that I briefly studied, and tells the story of the crucifixion of Christ from the point of view of the cross. There’s an image of Christ being crucified on the cross as well, but I think I actually neglected to take a photo of that particular image; it’s the lowest part of the cross on the south facing side.
My friend and I took a train to Dumfries then a bus to Clarencefield, then walked to the church from there. The weather was surprisingly gorgeous and it couldn’t have been a better day, really. I don’t believe that I ever imagined I would be wandering around rural southern Scotland in search of an Anglo Saxon cross but that’s what my life is right now. I love it.
When we got there we had to visit the manse where I picked up the church key. Then we had the whole place to ourselves so I could fangirl as much as I wanted. And I did—I brought my Old English textbook with me and found the lines corresponding with the runes. I’m extraordinarily grateful to my friend for making the trip with me for something that has no real significance to him, and then allowing me to act like a fool with excitement. After plenty of photos and walking around in the countryside, we sat down in a pub in Clarencefield to wait for our bus back to Dumfries. We ended our day eating dinner in Prince’s Square back in Glasgow. It was lovely to get out of the city for the day and it couldn’t have been better.
(Baker, Peter S. Introduction to Old English. 3rd ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. eBook.)
Leodum is minum swylce him mon lac gife;
willað hy hine aþecgan, gif he on þreat cymeð.
Ungelic is us.
Wulf is on iege, ic on oþerre.
Fæst is þæt eglond, fenne biworpen.
Sindon wælreowe weras þær on ige;
willað hy hine aþecgan, gif he on þreat cymeð.
Ungelice is us.
Wulfes ic mines widlastum wenum dogode;
þonne hit wæs renig weder ond ic reotugu sæt,
þonne mec se beaducafa bogum bilegde,
wæs me wyn to þon, wæs me hwæþre eac lað.
Wulf, min Wulf, wena me þine
seoce gedydon, þine seldcymas,
murnende mod, nales meteliste.
Gehyrest þu, Eadwacer? Uncerne earne hwelp
bireð Wulf to wuda.
þæt mon eaþe tosliteð þætte næfre gesomnad wæs,
uncer giedd geador.
'Wulf and Eadwacer' is one of the most enigmatic poems in Old English, and indeed, in the English Language. Because of the ambiguity of meaning of certain words, any attempt at translating the poem is inherently an interpretation. It immediately precedes the group of poems known as the riddles in the Exeter Book, and was originally categorised as a riddle based on its manuscript context, though today it is believed to have more in common with the genre of elegy.
The earliest commentators made no attempt to solve what they considered to be the first Exeter Book riddle, but a number of solutions have since been suggested. In 1857, Heinrich Leo argued that the solution was Cynewulf, an Anglo-Saxon poet whose name appears in runes in several of the poems attributed to him. On this basis, ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ as well as the rest of the Exeter Book riddles were considered for a long time to be the work of Cynewulf. In 1878, Richard Wülcker arrived at the same conclusion, but was also the first to describe the action of the poem as a woman addressing her lover or husband, apparently named Wulf. In 1884, Moritz Trautmann concluded that the solution to the riddle was ‘riddle.’
Henry Bradley produced a very different reading of the poem in 1888. He saw it as a ‘fragment of a dramatic soliloquy’ in which a female narrator, held captive in a foreign land, addresses both her outlaw lover, Wulf, and her tyrant husband, Eadwacer. This remained the dominant view of the poem for some time, and most of the popular interpretations today are still variations on Bradley’s theme. In particular, his reading of the narrator as female is difficult to dispute, based on the grammar, though some critics have tried. The adjectives ‘reotugu' and 'seoce' both have feminine inflectional endings.
One variation on Bradley’s interpretation, first suggested by Sir Israel Gollancz in 1902, and again by Peter Baker in 1981, casts Wulf as the narrator’s outlawed husband, and Eadwacer as her jailor or guard and eventually, lover. Another variation, posed by P. J. Frankis (1962), makes Eadwacer into the narrator’s outraged father, while Dolores Frese (1983) suggests that Wulf is the ‘hwelp,’ the narrator’s son. Several other critics have also read the poem as a mother’s lament for her son.
Other variations on the reading of ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ as a love triangle reduce the number of characters. John Adams (1958) interpreted the name Eadwacer as an epithet, meaning ‘property-watcher,’ which the narrator ironically applies to Wulf, and Terrence Keough (1976) argued that the same epithet was a reference to the narrator’s community, the ‘leodum minum,’ and read the poem as an exploration of ‘the personal and social effects of the separation of the outlaw [one meaning of the word wulf] from the society as a whole.’ Richard Giles (1981) suggested that the narrator applies the epithet of ‘property-watcher’ to herself.
Some more unusual interpretations of the poem have been developed by critics who have entirely abandoned the assumption that its characters are humans involved in some form of love relationship. W. J. Sedgefield (1931) argued that the narrator is ‘a female dog […] dreaming, daydreaming perhaps, of a wolf with whom she has actually had, or dreams she had, a love-affair in the course of her rambles in the forest.’ Donald K. Fry (1971) read the poem as a charm against warts or wens.
Many other commentators have attempted to analyse ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ by placing it within wider literary contexts, including the Old English poems Deor, The Wife’s Lament, and The Husband’s Message, and the Old Norse Volsunga Saga. However, any such connections are purely conjectural.
The poem “Wulf and Eadwacer” in its original Old English.
earmne ānhogan oft ġebindað,
þinceð him on mōde þæt hē his mondryhten
clyppe and cysse ond on cnēo lecge
honda ond hēafod, swā hē hwīlum ær
in ġeārdagum ġiefstōlas brēac.
Ðonne onwæcneð eft winelēas guma,
ġesihð him biforan fealwe wēgas,
baþian brimfuglas, brædan feþra,
hrēosan hrīm ond snāw, hagle ġemenġed.
Þonne bēoð þy hefiġran heortan benne,
sāre æfter swæsne. —
the Old English elegy “The Wanderer”
(“…when sorrow and sleep together bind the poor dweller-alone, it will seem to him in his mind that he is embracing and kissing his liege lord and laying his hands and his head on his knee, as it some times was in the old days when he took part in the gift-giving. Then he wakens again, the man with no lord, sees the yellow waves before him, the sea-birds bathe, spread their feathers, frost and snow fall, mingled with hail. Then the wounds are deeper in his heart, sore for want of his dear one.”)
Gosforth Cross details, including Loki bound with his wife Sigyn protecting him.
Detail from Gosforth Cross, Cumbria, England
Original photograph from Finnur Jónsson, Goðafræði Norðmanna og Íslendinga eftir Heimildum, 1913.
We speak of “war” as if it is a singular experience. But every time, every culture, does war in their own particular way (and some not at all).
War was central to the Anglo-Saxon experience - and they went about it in a very peculiar way. Many of our modern concepts of war and warriors actually start here in Anglo-Saxon culture. However, much of the Anglo-Saxon approach to war is now entirely alien to us.
But, if you want to understand the Anglo-Saxons you have to understand war the way they saw it. This episode is about the famous (and infamous) Anglo-Saxon Warband.