The Feminized Cross of 'The Dream of the Rood.'

By Dockray-Miller, Mary | Philological Quarterly, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview
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The Feminized Cross of 'The Dream of the Rood.'

Dockray-Miller, Mary, Philological Quarterly

The canonicity of The Dream of the Rood makes the poem seem

almost impervious to contemporary incursions of literary theory

and modern politics. Seminal articles by Margaret Schlauch

(1940) and Rosemary Woolf (1958) are complemented by

Michael Swanton's 1970 edition of the poem; criticism since that

time has seemed mostly to be a refining or nuancing of these

critics' tenets rather than an exploration into new ways of reading

the text.(1) I contend that an uncritical acceptance of the

Christianity of the poem has impeded theoretical examinations of

The Dream of the Rood; Christianity is the structure upon which

the text is built and it needs to be interrogated much as the

characters, actions, and speeches of the poem do. When Christian

doctrine is viewed as a textual structure rather than as a

monolithic and universal Truth, the critic can read the text in a

variety of ways. While what follows focuses on gender performance

in the poem, it analyzes the Christian structures of the

poem as part of a cultural domination by a patriarchal, hegemonic


When Christ is read as an interpretable character rather than

as a somehow transcendental Son of God, an analysis of the

gender paradigms and performances of the poem becomes possible.

The performances of Christ in the text of The Dream of the

Rood construct a masculinity for Christ that is majestic, martial,

and specifically heterosexual and that relies on a fragile opposition

with a femininity defined as dominated Other. Christ dominates

other figures within and without the text. His particularly

constructed masculinity, explored rather than merely assumed or

revered, adds a new dimension of gendered heterosexuality to

our understanding of this Old English poem.

In the pages that follow, I will argue that Christ's masculinity is

affirmed against the figure of the feminized cross in The Dream of

the Rood, which acts as a dominated Other. In my discussion of

Christ, I rely on Arthur Brittan's investigation into the construction

of masculinity as I examine Christ's gender performance in

this canonical poem.(2)

In The Dream of the Rood, the speaker tells of his swefna cyst, best

of dreams, in which he sees the cross of the crucifixion, alter

nately bejeweled and bloody, in the sky. The cross then speaks,

giving its own first person account of the Passion of Christ, and

encouraging the dreamer to spread the message of the cross to

his contemporaries. The poem ends as the dreamer resolves to

follow the cross's instructions, though he longs for the peace and

joy of heaven. The poem is probably the most frequently read

Old English text, after Beowulf, but the gender paradigms within

it have gone largely unremarked, despite the mountain of criticism

produced about the poem.

An examination of masculinity is a relatively new idea in

gender theory, undertaken most recently in medieval studies in

the essay collection Medieval Masculinities.(3) Until the advent of

feminist theory and its examination of women, the term "mankind"

defined a universalized and assumed, somehow genderless

humanity that was actually based on male or masculine

paradigms.(4) Those paradigms then seemed "natural" to the point

where they were taken for granted. This naturalization of masculinity

as humanity is discussed in Arthur Brittan's Masculinity and

Power, wherein he notes that in the social sciences the term

"human nature" actually refers to middle class white male

nature. For Brittan, "masculinism" is "the ideology that justifies

and naturalizes male domination" and it depends on a falsely

constructed dichotomy of man/woman or masculine/feminine

(147-48, 4).

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