- The Mental Container and the Cross of ChristRevelation and Community in The Dream of the Rood
A century and more of scholarship on The Dream of the Rood has set it in relation to many different elements of its cultural context in Anglo-Saxon England, and our ways of understanding the poem have grown correspondingly more nuanced. The numerous areas of early medieval thought and activity within which we can now meaningfully situate the text include cultic devotion to the Cross;1 monastic life;2 private spiritual contemplation, penitence, and mysticism;3 scripture (as [End Page 131] well as one apocryphon) with its nimbus of allegorical commentary;4 doctrinal development and theology, especially christological and soteriological;5 liturgy and hymnody;6 apocalyptic and eschatological discourse;7 [End Page 132] literary and cultural ideals of heroism;8 theory of dreams and conventions of their literary representation;9 traditions of poetic or rhetorical practice, both latinate and vernacular;10 artwork in stone [End Page 133] and metal;11 and iconography.12 Such a classification of the contextualizing work that has been done on The Dream of the Rood is a convenience only—even a glance at many of the studies I have cited will confirm that these categories blend and overlap in all directions—but it does indicate the range of useful contributions modern scholarship has made to our view of the poem's place in the culture that produced it. It also represents, imperfectly no doubt, an array of knowledge bases and fields of experience that might in principle have been available in any combination to guide early readers' actualizations of the text's meaning. Those which were prominent for a given individual will have worked in concert to shape the interpretive perspective of that insider to the late Anglo-Saxon social, spiritual, material, and intellectual world.
As cultural aliens for whom Old English verse is an object of academic study, we must proceed in a more reductive analytical fashion than any original audience would have done. We can try to reconstruct historically likely modes of reception only from one angle at a time, by choosing to foreground some part of the total cultural milieu in order [End Page 134] to develop a sharper apprehension of the individual text in relation to it; and in articulating any aspect of probable contemporary reception we are forced at least momentarily to set some other aspects aside. The historical and cultural divide between The Dream of the Rood's inscription in the tenth-century Vercelli Book and the vantage point of its present-day readers is hardly less dramatic than the manuscript's own geographic displacement across the Alps, where it long remained unintelligible and whence its reintroduction—now not to Anglo-Saxons but to the very different audience of Anglo-Saxonists—has been a late, slow, and piecemeal process.13 While some kinds of knowledge that offer historically pertinent approaches to The Dream of the Rood were never lost to us, and others have been found or their relevance recognized over the years, some factors influencing the phenomenology of the poem for its contemporary audiences must have receded beyond the horizon of our probable discovery. Surely certain features of Anglo-Saxon life, thought, and experience with which this text once interacted fluently now lie unperceived in a cultural and intellectual idioma that is partially to us, as the Old English language was to the manuscript's early nineteenth-century custodians at Vercelli, ignotum.14
Limited as we are by the fact that we cannot position ourselves to experience Old English poems as their original readers and hearers did, one way we have always tried to improve our chances of approximating [End Page 135] early interpretation, when that is what we wish to do, is through deliberate sensitivity to the discursive environments that simultaneously fuel, guide, and constrain the generation of meaning. Such environments may be textually immediate: the individual manuscript's content and arrangement, for instance.15 But they may also be further reaching and more abstract, like the webs of association spun from formal latinate learning that much prior scholarship on The Dream of the Rood has investigated; or...