The Place of the Cross in Anglo-Saxon England

02 November 2006


The Boydell Press £50 (1-84383-194-5); Church Times Bookshop £45

THIS is the second of three volumes making available new research presented at a series of conferences and seminars concerned with the cross in Anglo-Saxon art and society, which took place between 2001 and 2003.

Interdisciplinary in approach, the project brought together archaeologists, art historians, literary scholars, and others with a shared interest in questions relating to the imagery and use of the cross in Anglo-Saxon England. It is part of the happily accelerating revival of university-based Anglo-Saxon studies, which in turn is part of a wider and renewed interest in the history and culture of the British Isles as a whole during the post-Roman, pre-Norman period.

Most of the papers in this collection were presented in Manchester in 2002, and the book is helpfully divided into three sections - the cross in the landscape, the cross in the Church, and the cross in the text.

A recurrent theme in these pages is the popular story of St Helena's discovery of the true cross in AD 326, and the many miracles and legends about her and her son Constantine, who was proclaimed Emperor in York in 306, associated with this. (The event is being celebrated in York later this year with an important exhibition.)

Such stories bridged local and national boundaries among different Christian tribes and kingdoms, which were involved in constantly changing patterns of local power and control, and in warfare, invasions, and shifting alliances.

Several contributors discuss different aspects of the long, complex evolution of the dramatic, free-standing, carved ceremonial crosses that increasingly marked the landscape with sacred Christian significance from the seventh century onwards. These are reflected in many surviving place names, the patterns of which are traced in a useful chapter by Alexander Rumble.

Other contributors consider the cross as it was celebrated and invoked in hymns, prayers, poetry, amulets, charms, medical texts, and devotions, including ritual blessings used for protection and to ward off the Devil.

Jane Roberts focuses on St Guthlac of Crowland, the principal saint of the ancient kingdom of Mercia; while several writers return to the fascinating relationship between the magnificent Ruthwell cross in modern Dumfriesshire, and the great Anglo-Saxon visionary poem The Dream of the Rood, in which the cross speaks movingly of its own suffering and sorrow.

Such work takes us back directly to the inspiring, turbulent world of spiritual intensity and cultural achievement which ended at the Battle of Hastings.

Simon Watney is Conservation Cases Recorder of the Church Monuments Society.

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