Date of Award

12-2010

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Major

English

Major Professor

Thomas J.A. Heffernan

Committee Members

Joseph B. Trahern, Jr., Laura L. Howes, Christine Shepardson

Abstract

The first decades following a country’s conversion to Christianity are sometimes marked by experimentation with native expressions of piety. Out of the multicultural environment of early Christian Northumbria such experiments created an insular Germanic version of sanctity. In the mid-seventh century, Oswiu of Northumbria (642-670), the younger brother and successor to King Oswald, constructed an elaborate narrative of God’s plan for England (without consent or guidance from the Roman Church). His narrative would weave his family into the sacred fabric of his nascent, Christian kingdom. Through skillful manipulation of oral tradition, material culture and sacri loci he crafted a unique interpretation of his brother’s death, an interpretation that Bede later canonizes in his Ecclesiastical History. King Oswiu, developed a novel form of the sacred by fusing certain established topoi of Christian sanctity with cultural elements from the Germans, Irish, Britons and Picts. Oswiu created the first Germanic holy warrior. Oswald with his dual nature as martyred warrior-king and humble saint represented a uniquely hybrid model of Germanic Christian sanctity as an imitatio for his people.

It is this same cultural and intellectual environment, that gave birth to the Anglo-Saxon poetic masterpiece, The Dream of the Rood, which I suggest was written during the reign of King Aldfrith (685-705). Whereas Oswiu wished to consolidate political power through aligning his family with the newly introduced religion, the poet of the Dream of the Rood focused on exploring a related issue, the dual nature of Christ. The poem draws inspiration from the same font of political, cultural, and spiritual ideas that Oswiu used when he created his martyr-king. The inversions of traditional roles — Christ as warrior in The Dream of the Rood and warrior-king Oswald as martyr and humble servant of God — represent an outgrowth of the spiritual milieu that existed in seventh century Northumbria.

The Dream of the Rood and the narrative of St. Oswald’s martyrdom reflect not merely Germanic ideals but a unique worldview stemming from the cultural and ethnic diversity of Northumbria. Both also reflect a desire by the Northumbrians to include themselves in the narrative of the Christian faith.

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