The crucifixion of Christ is treated differently within the bodies of Old English and Middle English literature. The values of each era's society are superimposed on the descriptions of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Christ is depicted either as the model of the hero, prevalent in Old English literature, or as the embodiment of love and passion, as found in Showings by Julian of Norwich.
Old English literature establishes the elements of the heroic code, to which its society ascribed. A man must live, or die, by his honor. In The Dream of the Rood the crucifixion of Christ is depicted as the ultimate symbol of heroism, as all mankind bewailed Christ's death and prepared a gilt cross for him. "This was surely no felon's gallows, but holy spirits beheld it there, men upon earth, and all this glorious creation. Wonderful was the triumph-tree, and I stained with sins, wounded with wrongdoings. I saw the tree of glory shine splendidly, adorned with garments, decked with gold, jewels had worthily covered Christ's tree." (Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth Ed., p. 19) Christ is not rendered as a figure of pathos. Christ is identified with the other glorious warriors of Anglo-Saxon times, such as Beowulf, in this rendering of the cross. It was tradition during the Anglo-Saxon period to bury the honored death with all of the adornments of wealth that they had gained in the earthly life.
The Dream of the Rood treats the death of Christ as the culmination of His glory. As the Rood itself speaks, "Disclose with your words that it is the tree of glory on which Almighty God suffered for mankind's many sins and the deeds of Adam did of old. He tasted death there; yet the Lor...
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...sh Literature, Sixth Ed., p. 297) This change in the integral ideal of the subject matter is perhaps indicative of the ensuing social changes that occurred during the Middle English period. Julian describes Christ's gift as the fulfillment of his love for all creation. It is not for honor that Christ gave his life. Of course, during the Old English period, the lord's retainers certainly experienced "love" in some fashion for the man they willingly gave their lives. Certainly that "love" was not to be construed as a display of femininity, for these men were warriors.
Changing social values helped to transform the Old English heroic code to the Middle English chivalric ideal. The literature of each of the periods offers the examples upon which to base this conclusion. Old English honoric ideals are complemented by Middle English concepts of love and beauty.
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