The earliest version of The Dream of the Rood that we have is inscribed in runes on an Anglo-Saxon cross that is now to be found in an apse of the church at Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire. The fact that it should now be in lowland Scotland is testament to the argy-bargy that has been an almost continuous feature of those borderlands ever since the wall of Hadrian and probably before that as well. In the late seventh or early eighth centuries when this magnificent cross was carved this part of the largest island of the British Isles was in Northumbrian hands.
It will probably not surprise you to learn that the monument itself has suffered ‘many cruel fates’ over the years much like the eloquent wood of the True Cross that tells the story of the Crucifixion in the poem.
The cross has been at various times inside and outside the kirk at Ruthwell. In 1682 it was attacked as idolatrous and broken down by order of the Church of Scotland. The history of the cross, which was almost certainly an Anglo-Saxon preaching cross originally, is nicely summarised in Michael Swanton’s introduction to his edition of The Dream of the Rood, available through the University of Exeter Press.
Magdalene Panel showing the runes of the poem
The wonderful carving is in the manner of Roman monumental sculpture but the closest correspondences to the figurative scheme are to be found in the contemporaneous religious art of Byzantium. It is clear that the sculptor considered the poem to be an integral part of his symbolic intention.
The sculptor’s use of runes to convey the words is highly appropriate. It is the artist attempting to integrate in a single vision the disparate worlds of a heroic culture and the new religion. Something both Greeks and Romans had done themselves centuries earlier. I am certain that the anonymous poet of The Dream of the Rood would have approved seeing as that poem is itself a brilliant example of the same thing.