Christianity Theme in Medieval Literary Works
The Middle Ages, also known as the medieval era, is a time frame, in Europe, of about 1,000 years that dates from the early 5th century through the 15th century. The medieval era is responsible for producing some of the most brilliant works of literature by some of the most brilliant authors. These literary works produced by these authors have a central theme, idea, or message they are trying to convey to their readers. There are several different themes that authors use throughout medieval literature but one theme that really stands out is the theme/use of Christianity. “The impact of Christianity on literacy is evident from the fact that the first extended written specimen of the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) language is a code of laws promulgated by Ethelbert, the first English Christian king” (Greenblatt 6). Several different literary works reveal the Christianity theme, but three works are the poems Caedmon’s Hymn, The Dream of the Rood, and the morality play, Everyman.
Caedmon’s Hymn was a poem written by the Venerable Bede. Bede’s background plays a major role in his writing style. At a very young age, Bede was extremely intelligent. He was first placed in a monastery at the age of 7. A year later, he was moved to the monastery of St. Paul at Jarrow and was placed under the care of Abbott Ceolfrith. Ralph Mathisen reports that, “[i]n 686, a plague so ravaged the monastery that, according to Ceolfrith’s anonymous biographer, only the abbot himself and one boy were well enough to sing the antiphons in the choir. This boy probably was Bede, who even at this young age was able to fulfill the duties of a choir monk” (Mathisen). Even though he “[…] also provides an in-depth history of England up to his own lifetime, his main focus is the spread of [Christianity] in his native country” (Fiorentino). In Bede’s version of Caedmon’s Hymn, we hear the story of how Caedmon is visited by a stranger in a dream and awakes with the ability to compose Christian lyrics.
Caedmon is a simple cowherd who is also illiterate. During the feast, everyone takes turns passing a harp and singing. Because of his illiteracy, Caedmon leaves before it becomes his turn. Caedmon prepares for bed and that night he is visited by a stranger who “gifts” him the ability to create song. Caedmon visits with his foreman the next morning and explains to him the gift he received during his sleep. His foreman is astonished and immediately takes Caedmon to the abbess to share and provide proof of his new-found gift. Bede writes:
It was evident to all of them that he had been granted the heavenly grace of God. Then they expounded some bit of sacred story or teaching to him, and instructed him to turn it into poetry if he could. He agreed and went away. And when he came back the next morning, he gave back what had been commissioned to him in the finest verse. (Bede 31)
Caedmon goes on to take monastic vows was learns the sacred history. He creates many songs and is an influence on others. Bede explains that the songs he [Caedmon] creates from what he learns “sounded so delightful that he made his teachers, in their turn, his listeners” (Bede 32).
In the poem Caedmon’s Hymn, the Christian theme is portrayed through a living being. However, that is not the case for the poem The Dream of the Rood. Even though the date of composition or the author is not known, “The Dream of the Rood (i.e., of the Cross) is considered the finest of a large number of religious poems in Anglo-Saxon” (Greenblatt 32). We know that “[t]he poem was originally known only in fragmentary form from some 8th-century runic inscriptions on the Ruthwell Cross, now standing in the parish church of Ruthwell, now Dumfries District, Dumfries and Galloway” (Britannica).
The cross [rood] tells the events that take places is the hours that lead to the crucifixion of Christ.