Gender, language, and power in "The Dream of the Rood"

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Author: Emma B. Hawkins
Date: Fall 1995
From: Women and Language(Vol. 18, Issue 2)
Publisher: George Mason University
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,576 words

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The poem 'The Dream of the Rood' is about the experience of the cross during the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The poet used masculine-coded and feminine-coded language to portray status changes of power-figures. Jesus Christ plays as a heroic warrior-lord who attains spiritual victory by experiencing defeat on the cross. The cross and Christ symbolizes the traffic back and forth between power and powerlessness.

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The Anglo-Saxons perceived of power as the ability to overcome all opposition and impose one's will on others, primarily by physical force but also by more temperate means of persuasion. Encompassing such diverse activities as warfare and enslavement on one extreme to counseling and peace-weaving on the other, power incorporated the concepts of influence, persuasion, authority, force, and coercion.(1) Understandably, Anglo-Saxon writers frequently expressed an interest in the mechanics of power: who could exercise power; how it could be gained, preserved, regulated, shared, and lost; and what its limitations were. Particularly concerned with how language could be used to signal a status of power, the poet of "The Dream of the Rood" used masculine- and feminine-coded language to signal a change in the status of power-figures.

In previous examinations of Old English poetry, the prevailing critical attitude has been to associate the exercise of power with sex, the distinction between males and females based primarily upon "biological functions" and "anatomophysiological machinery" or sex-oriented social roles (Foucault 153). Occasionally, we encounter some timid, brief allusion to the possibility that a status of power and influence was not established strictly by biological sex, but by demonstrating wisdom, nobility, and courage (Damico 27); that, in circumstances which demanded heroic activity to advance God's kingdom, men and women exercised power in the same manner (Chance 110); or that language usage might shed light on how status was acquired. In Old English texts the nouns "man" mann and "lord" hlaford frequently referred to females as well as males (Fell 17-19). Recent literary scholarship has just begun to explore the possibility that the Anglo-Saxon perception of gender closely resembles the definition of gender offered by sociologists Judith Gerson and Kathy Peiss.

Gender is not a rigid or reified analytic category imposed on human experience, but a fluid one whose meaning emerges in specific social contexts as it is created and recreated through human actions. (317)

In his article "When Women Aren't Enough" (1993), Allen Frantzen opts for a gender theory that not only incorporates behavior, thoughts, and traits which permit men and women to behave like men and women respectively, but also accommodates men who act like women, and women who act like men (451). Such a system would account for those women in medieval works who achieved a status more powerful than men as well as for those men who held a weaker position than women and other men (446). Frantzen examines how three "desexed" female saints from Aelfric's prose piece Lives of Saints transcended their womanly bodies to conform to Aelfric's own belief that women could not earn salvation unless they acquired "a man's nature."(2) While Frantzen explores a few traits, his list of masculine- and feminine-coded characteristics is somewhat abbreviated.

Carol Clover expands the list in "Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe" (1993), an article which explores the relationship between power and gender-coded language in Icelandic sagas. To account for those women whose actions exceeded accepted behavior for the female sex, Clover argues that gender constituted an open system of "acquired traits [masculine and feminine]" (370) based "to an extraordinary extent on winnable and losable attributes" (379) accessible to both men and women. Gender was not necessarily "coextensive with biological sex" (379). "Distinction had to be acquired, and constantly reacquired, by wresting it away from others" (380). Although Clover focuses on the relation between gender-coded language and power in Icelandic culture, her fundamental premise is that Scandinavian culture, and, perhaps Germanic culture in general (385), including Anglo-Saxon England, condoned a "sex-gender system rather different from our own, and . . . from that of the Christian Middle Ages" (364).

An examination of "The Dream of the Rood," a poem which relates the experiences of the cross at Christ's crucifixion, along gender lines will reveal that a "free-floating" system (Butler 6) similar to those examined by Frantzen and Clover also appears in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Masculine-coded traits which traditionally verified the possession of power were honor, mastery, aggression, victory, bravery, independence, martial prowess, physical strength, assertiveness, verbal acuteness, hardness or firmness, and respect from others. Traits coded feminine (non-masculine) which suggested powerlessness were dishonor, subservience, passivity, defeat, cowardice, dependence, defenselessness, weakness, lack of volition, verbal ineptness, softness or indecisiveness, and lack of respect.(3) The "Rood"-poet depended upon gender-coded language to trace the ebb and flow of power among poetical figures.

In "The Rood," the malleability of the Anglo-Saxon gender system is easily verified by watching for changes in the gender-coded language. Martin Irvine argues that the cross functions as a typological emblem of the greatest of victories, a "sign of [Christ's] victory over sin and death" (173). Indeed, Christ is portrayed as a heroic young warrior-lord. But, in order to secure the spiritual victory, Christ submissively allows himself to be physically defeated on the cross and to be mastered, an indication of powerlessness and weakness to the Anglo-Saxon audience, devotees of the violence-prone heroic ethos. Initially portrayed as male power-figures, the cross and Christ demonstrate the traffic back and forth between power and powerlessness. Faithful and loyal, the masculine-coded retainer-cross experiences an internal power struggle. He must reconcile his manly obligation to use physical strength and martial prowess to protect lord and self in times of peril with the duty to obey the leader's command to remain passive and powerless. Gender-coded language signals when the cross and Christ move from an established position of power (coded masculine), through the loss of power (coded feminine), and to the regaining of power.

When the poem opens, the dreamer immediately begins to enumerate those attributes - honorable, worthy of respect, physically strong, brave, victorious - which establish a status of power for the cross. The cross deserves honor and respect not only from men throughout the world but from all of creation (l. 13).(4) Relying upon the superlative form of the adjectives, the poet emphasizes that the retainer-cross is the "brightest" beorhtost (l. 6) and "best" selesta (l. 27). Enveloped in light and adorned with precious gold and gleaming jewels (ll .4-6a), this "sign" beacen (l. 6) enjoys an exalted and noble, even royal, standing. When the dreamer notices that the cross is also "drenched with blood" mid woetan bestemed (l. 22-b), he concludes that the "cross of victory" sigebeam (l. 14), the "tree of glory" wuldres treow (l. 14), must have participated in some "very wretched struggle" earmra oergewin (l. 19), and emerged victorious. Thus, we see that the cross in introduced as a male-coded power-figure.

Once the cross begins to recount past events, the language gradually shifts to the feminine mode. The weakened cross becomes the recipient of action performed by stronger male power-figures. The cross experiences the fate typically reserved for survivors on the losing side of a medieval battle. Warriors who chose to surrender rather than fight to the death (the honorable fate of a warrior) and defenseless old men, children, and women were frequently subjected to torture, mutilation, rape, and enslavement. The first verse of "Deor" describes the mutilation and enslavement of a captured male, while lines 34-46a of "Judith" describe the humiliation and rape that Holofernes intended to inflict upon his female captive. Similarly, having been mastered by more powerful males, the cross is "cut down" aheawen (l. 29), "bound" gefoestnodon (l. 33), "carried off" genaman (l. 30), and "made into a spectacle" geworhton him thoer to woefersyne (l. 31). The switch to feminine-coded language signals that the cross has fallen into the category of the conquered, the dishonored, the helpless.

In sharp contrast, masculine-coded language now designates Christ as the strong figure of power. "Strong and steadfast" strang and stidhmod (l. 40), the young warrior-lord boldly strips off his clothing (l. 39) and eagerly approaches the cross. Comprised of two elements stidh, meaning "stiff, hard, rigid," and mod, "mind, heart, spirit, resolve," the compound adjective stidhmod emphasizes that Christ's mind or heart is rigidly set. He is unrelenting in his resolve. "Bravely" modig, Christ mounts the gallows in the sight of many (l. 41). We find a similar play on stidh in "The Battle of Maldon."(5) After a band of fierce Vikings comes ashore to plunder the English countryside, one swaggering Viking warrior stands on the shore and "sternly shouts" stidhlice clypode (l. 25) the terms of peace. The stidh- adverb can be interpreted, "with a rigid, hard, unyielding body; sternly." Byrhtnoth's taunt in line 59 completes the hard-soft contrast. "You shall not gain the treasure so easily (softly)." Ne sceole ge swa softe sinc gegangan. Among the Anglo-Saxon warriors, some are "war-hardened" wigheardne (l. 75), and all are "resolved" stidhhicgende (l. 122) to fight "sternly, firmly" stidh (l. 301) to the death. Having suffered heavy losses, the Vikings gain the victory. But, just as Byrhtnoth predicted, the booty was not "easily, softly" captured.

Characterized as a faithful male "retainer" hilderinca (l. 72) "powerful enough to overcome all adversaries" ealle ic mihte / feondas gefyllan (ll. 37b-38a), the retainer-cross is obligated to do as his sovereign commands, to voluntarily refrain from violent resistance (l. 47) instead of overwhelming the enemy with superior force. By not fighting to the death to protect his lord, the retainer-cross violates the heroic code and becomes an object of "shame" wommum (l. 14). Helpless and unable to act on his own volition, the cross must perform according to the dictates of his captors. He is forced to lift up his "powerful king" ricne cyning to die (l. 44). Within these parameters, severely injured, "pierced with dark nails" thurhdrifan . . . mid deorcan noeglum (l. 46) and "smeared with blood" mid blode bestemed (l. 48), the cross stands "firmly, fixed" foeste (ll. 38, 43), "refusing to bow to the earth" hyldan me ne dorste (l. 45). Even as the cross stoically refuses to bend in the face of adversity, he also exhibits womanly traits.

In "The Rood," the Church is not referred to as the bride nor Christ as the bridegroom (Matt. 9:15; John 3:29) nor God as the husband (Is. 54:5; Rev. 21: 2,9), imagery with which the Christian "Rood"-author was likely familiar. Yet, the analogy used to describe the association of Christ to the cross seems to introduce another metaphor based on the male-female relationship. Christ hurries with great zeal "to climb, mount" gestigan (ll. 34, 40) and "embrace" ymbclypte (l. 42) the cross who holds the feminine-coded position. Twice, the cross reminds the dreamer that the young warrior-lord climbed or mounted him. Without question, Christ has become the actor; the cross is the passive recipient of action. Christ bleeds; the cross is bled upon (ll. 22, 48). Christ sweats profusely; the cross is drenched with his lord's sweat (l. 23). The lord is nailed to a tree; the retainer-cross serves as the instrument of his lord's death. The nails which pierce the retainer are first driven through the body of his lord. The lord dies; the retainer is left standing in a pool of his lord's blood (l. 62).

The cross also admits that when the young warrior-lord mounted and embraced him, the cross trembled (bifode, l. 42). Later the cross, the male figure who has assumed feminine attributes, even "cries out" or weeps stefn up gewat (l. 71),(6) as do the women of "The Wife's Lament" and "Wulf and Eadwacer." However, since the women are exhibiting a feminine-coded trait, they can weep over their misfortunes without being censured. Not so the men. While Anglo-Saxon culture tolerated trembling, emotionally crying out or weeping from women, it did not condone such behavior from warriors. In Beowulf King Hrothgar is depicted as the pathetically weakened old man who is so overcome by emotion that he weeps until the tears run down his beard (ll. 1872b-73a). Like the women and old Hrothgar, by failing to exercise emotional control the cross has exhibited a weakness associated with women.

In the section of the poem which recounts the actual crucifixion (ll. 39-74), feminine-coded language indicates that the retainer-cross has moved from a position of masculine fortitude and bravery to one of feminine weakness and cowardice. According to the exiled warrior of "The Wanderer," any retainer eager for glory and concerned with his reputation will hold his tongue and resist broadcasting his thoughts or complaining about his miseries (ll. 11-17).(7) The code for warriors demanded that "a suffering man must bear up silently" (Mitchell and Robinson 245). Or as Beowulf advises Hrothgar after the death of Aeschere, a man should not grieve or mourn too much when action is called for (ll. 1384-85).(8) If we judge the cross by the heroic standard promulgated by the Wanderer and Beowulf - no complaining, no crying, and no emotional outbursts - by voicing his misfortunes to others, the cross is guilty of less than admirable, even unmanly, behavior. Furthermore, although the cross is obeying his lord's orders not to offer resistance, the warrior-based audience probably would have interpreted his action as cowardly. His behavior is no more virtuous than that of the cowardly retainers who failed to protect Beowulf during his battle with the dragon. By the end of this section, feminine-coded language confirms that, having maintained a submissive and passive stance, the retainer-cross has slipped into the feminine-coded category of the weak, the ineffectual, the cowardly, the disempowered.

This condition of powerlessness is not irreversible. During the Harrowing of Hell, Christ resumes the stance of the young warrior-lord. Behaving once more in a strong, manly fashion, He is "victorious" sigorfcest (l. 150), "powerful" mihtig and "successful" spedig (l. 151). Christ rises from the dead "by his own great power" mid his miclan mihte (l. 102), having gained the "power to judge" domes geweald mankind (l. 107). Men fear the very word He utters: Ne moeg thoer oenig unforht wesan / for tham worde the se Wealdend cwydh (ll. 110-11). Christ has reclaimed his former status of power. Mary and the cross cannot. Lacking power, they do not possess those manly qualities indicative of the exercise of power. They must wait to be re-empowered by the masculine-coded Christ. Identifying with Mary, the cross confirms that Christ bestows upon him the same power and respect which He extends to Mary (ll. 90-92). The cross's power has not merely been restored; it has been augmented. Once more the cross is decked with gold (l. 77) and honored by men far and wide (l. 81). Not only is the cross worthy of homage and prayers (l. 83), but he is empowered to heal (ll. 85b-86) and has become an intermediary between humankind and the greatest Lord of all (l. 119). In addition, the cross has been empowered to command mortal man: Nu ic the hate (l. 95a). Satisfied that the cross has the power to "fetch" gefetige (l. 138) and "bring" gebringe (l. 139) him to heaven, with complete confidence the dreamer in the poem prays to (l. 122) and honors the sigebeam (ll. 127-29). Through Christ's superior power, Christ and the cross have regained their masculine-coded positions of power.

As the "Rood"-poet discloses, whether or not a poetical figure was portrayed as powerful or powerless did not depend entirely upon biological sex, social roles, or sphere of operation. A condition of power or powerlessness was signaled by the exercise of attributes which formerly had been associated with men and women respectively, but which by the eighth and ninth centuries in England' had become disassociated from biological sex, although they did retain their gender affiliations. No longer the exclusive property of a particular sex, gender-coded traits constituted a fluid system of classification that indicated who was able or permitted to exercise power. All traits were open for assumption. Once attained, a status of power or powerlessness was not permanent; one could traffic back and forth freely between the two positions. On more than one occasion in a lifetime, circumstances could cause a male-figure to lose a masculine-coded position and assume a feminine-coded one. Through such gender-coded language, the changing status of the cross and Christ can clearly be traced in "The Dream of the Rood."


1 This perception of power closely resembles Max Weber's twentieth-century definition of power found on page 180 in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. In general we understand by 'power' the chance of a man or of a number of men to realize their own will in a communal action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the action. In Women and Power in the Middle Ages, editors Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski reject this prominent "historical" view of power as "public authority" imposed by "law and force" (1-2). See also Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality: An Introduction 86-87.

2 These "manly women" were able to transcend their womanly bodies by cross-dressing as men (Agatha, Eugenia, and Euphrosyne) or through the amputation of a breast (Agatha). See Frantzen 461-65.

3 developed a composite list of appropriate traits based on those stereotypical non-biological qualities mentioned by Frantzen and Clover in their articles, by Chance and Damico in their books, and by Rhoda Unger and Mary Crawford in Women and Gender: A Feminist Psychology 130.

4 All quotations from "The Dream of the Rood" are from Krapp's edition of The Vercelli Book 60-65. I translate.

5 All references to "The Battle of Maldon" are from Dobbie's edition of The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems 7-16. I translate.

6 As Krapp notes, stefn is not in the original manuscript, but is an emendation (page 63, footnote for line 71). The conflict centers on sentence sense versus preservation of alliteration. Sweet (Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Reader, 156), Mitchell and Robinson (245), and Pope (68) substitute stefn for sydhdhan. Krapp and Bright retain sydhdhan and add stefn. In Bright's Old English Grammar and Reader, Bright argues that the line needs stefn for alliterative purposes (314). Pope reasons that since there is no need for the conjunction sydhdhan, it is better to substitute stefn. Literally, the phrase is translated "[his] voice departed." I paraphrase as, "he cried out."

7 All references to "The Wanderer" are from the edition of The Exeter Book by Krapp and Dobbie 134-37. I translate.

8 All references to Beowulf are from Dobbie's edition of Beowulf and Judith. I translate.

9 Most of the extant Old English poetry was probably composed during this period. Old English language scholars Mitchell and Robinson propose these specific time limitations (124). In close agreement, similar boundaries are fixed by the historians Frank Stenton in Anglo-Saxon England as A.D. 700-850 (195) and by David Harrison in England Before the Norman Conquest as the seventh, eighth, and early ninth centuries (233).


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Chance, Jane. Woman As Hero in Old English Literature. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1986.

Clover, Carol J. "Regardless of Sex: Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe." Speculum 68 (1993): 363-87.

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Dobbie, Elliott Van Kirk, ed. The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems. Vol. 6 New York: Columbia University Press, 1942. 6 vols.

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Frantzen, Allen J. "When Women Aren't Enough." Speculum 68 (1993): 445-71.

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Irvine, Martin. "Anglo-Saxon Literary Theory Exemplified in Old English Poems: Interpreting the Cross in The Dream of the Rood and Elene." Style: Medieval Semiotics 20.2 (1986): 157-81.

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Krapp, George P., and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, eds. The Exeter Book. Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. Vol. 3. New York: Columbia University Press: London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1936. 6 vols.

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Pope, John C. Seven Old English Poems. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1981.

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Sweet, Henry. Sweet's Anglo-Saxon England. Rev. Dorothy White-lock. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1967.

Unger, Rhoda, and Mary Crawford. Women and Gender: A Feminist Psychology. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

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Emma Hawkins is in the Department of English at the University of North Texas, Denton, Texas.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A18499211