The Cross as Tree: The Wood-of-the-Cross Legends in Middle English and Latin Texts in Medieval England
PhD Thesis, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto (2009)
The medieval wood-of-the-cross legends trace the history of the wood of Christ’s cross back to Old Testament figures and sometimes to paradise itself, where the holy wood was derived from the very tree from which Adam and Eve disobediently ate. These legends are thought to have originated in Greek, afterwards radiating into Latin and the vernacular languages of Western Europe. The earliest witness of these narratives (the “rood-tree” legend) is extant in English fragments of the eleventh century, with full versions found in one twelfth-century English manuscript and several Latin ones originating in England. In this study I examine both the setting into which the rood-tree legend arrived, as well as the later, more elaborate wood-of-the-cross legends that inspired adaptations into Middle English writings. The opening chapter establishes the development of the wood-of-the-cross narrative and its manifestations in both the Latin West and the Eastern languages. Chapter two characterizes the strong devotion to the holy cross in Anglo-Saxon England, and its manifestation in literature, theological writings and art, while chapter three details the Latin and Middle English versions of the wood-of-the-cross legends in manuscript form in England. The fourth chapter traces the concept of the “cross as tree,” beginning with medieval glosses on important biblical tree references, followed by the use of the cross-tree image in Christian writings from patristic times through the medieval period. The penultimate chapter examines key narrative motifs from the legends and provides important parallels of these motifs in other genres, including romance, hagiography and travel writing.
I conclude that the wood-of-the-cross legends would have been welcomed into Anglo-Saxon England by a pre-existing reverence for the holy cross, and that this devotion probably bolstered their reception in that country. However, the most significant reasons for the legends’ popularity are not specific to England, but rather are common throughout Western Europe in the Middle Ages: the adaptability of the tree as a symbol, the familiarity of the narrative motifs used, and the significant appeal of the legends’ typological structure which tied the wood of Christ’s cross to the very tree whose violation had brought about the Fall of man.