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Essays in Medieval Studies 22 (2005) 141-153

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Imitatio in Early Medieval Spirituality:

The Dream of the Rood, Anselm, and Militant Christology

Augusta State University

While we often say that Anselm of Canterbury founded a tradition of medieval affective spirituality, no tradition arises in a vacuum. Anselm produced his works of meditative literature within intersecting Latin and vernacular traditions of affective spirituality established in the Anglo-Latin works of monastic writers (Alcuin, Bede, among others), as well as in vernacular religious poetry. This paper addresses the conjunction of imitatio and vengeance in The Dream of the Rood and in Anselm's prayers and meditations. My particular concern is the implications of this conjunction for the development of a rising militant Christianity during the early Crusade era.1 We might expect The Dream of the Rood to support this development, since the poem connects heroic behavior to its account of the Passion. Anselm's prayers and meditations, I will show, also unexpectedly address the issue of vengeance for the death of Christ.

Both The Dream of the Rood and Anselm's writings use patterns of identification to associate vengeance with devotion. In The Dream of the Rood, the imitatio crucis distances the Dreamer from the sufferings of the heroic Christ, directing the Dreamer away from thoughts of revenge to a longing for his own salvation.2 In Anselm's writings, however, the supplicant seeks to imitate Christ himself, reaching for sublime union with the Savior from the depths of human sin. The affective force of Anselm's prayers and meditations, which can bring the supplicant to the heights of divine felicity, can likewise plunge him or her into desperate self-loathing or even into violent action against Christ's enemies, a response which Anselm anticipates and explicitly forbids.

In The Dream of the Rood, the sufferings of the heroic Christ occur at a distance, since they are related through the suffering of the Rood. As the Rood speaks, the Dreamer and the poem's audience identify with the cross rather than with Christ. The poem's "speech-bearers" ("reordberend," 3, 89), including the Dreamer, listen [End Page 141] rather than speak, as they would in a prayer. Only after the Dreamer has listened and understood does the cross instruct him to speak, addressing him twice as "my beloved man" ("hæleð min se leofa," 78b, 95b), using a convention of homiletic address. Thus the Rood's message is conveyed to the larger community of which the Dreamer is a part. Through this pattern of identification, Anne Savage argues, the "audience comes to identify strongly with the emotional state of the speaker . . . the homiletic mode . . . is then employed to distance the emotion, and apply the wisdom gained . . . the sense of identification between [the experiences of the two speakers, the Dreamer and the Rood] is designed to be very strong."3

The Dreamer's imitatio crucis brings him from the grief of sinfulness to friendship with Christ, emphasizing the Dreamer's own guilt more than that of the "strong enemies" ("strange feondas," 30b) to whom the Rood refers. Initially, the Dreamer feels the shame of his sins, which he describes as wounds: "'the victory-beam was wondrous, and I was stained with sin, wounded with iniquities'" ("'Syllic wæs se sigebeam, ond ic synnum fah, / forwunded mid wommum,'" 13-14a). The Dreamer's suffering and guilt from these wounds parallels the torment of the Rood, who says of its state during the Crucifixion, "'Wounds were visible on me then, open malicious wounds'" ("'On me syndon þa dolg gesiene, / opene inwidhlemmas,'" 46b-47a). The Rood further echoes the terms used earlier by the Dreamer himself: "'I was all sorely wounded with arrows'" ("'eall ic wæs mid strælum forwundod,'" 62b). Despite its suffering in Christ's company, the Rood also indicates its own guilt in the proceedings: "'They began to make a sepulchre for him, men in the sight of the slayer,'" that is, in the sight of the cross itself ("'Ongunnon him...


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