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 fifth century through the fifteenth 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 authors use throughout medieval literature but one theme that 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). Many 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 Bede “[…] 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 his 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 story is told by a living being. However, that is not the case for the poem The Dream of the Rood. The cross is the storyteller in the poem. 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).
Along with the Christian theme, the heroic theme also shows in the poem. Christ represents the hero and the rood represents the retainer. However, the purpose of the poem is to explain the day of the crucifixion of Christ. The cross [rood] tells the events that take place in the hours leading up to the crucifixion of Christ. The pain and emotions the rood feels, are clearly shown. The poem reads:
I was all bereft with sorrows; that splendid sight made me afraid.
Yet I, lying there for a long time,
sorrowfully beheld the tree of our Savior
until I could hear it call out to me (The Dream of the Rood, Lines 20-21, 24-26).
The rood wants to save Christ from his ill fate just like a “good” retainer should. However, instead of falling and crushing the people who are treating Christ so cruelly, the rood stands firm and does deter from the Lord’s will. The rood explains the reason for the crucifixion by saying:
There he tasted death; yet the Redeemer arose
with his great might to help mankind.
Then he rose to Heaven. He will come again
to this middle-earth to seek out mankind
on Judgement Day, the Redeemer himself,
God Almighty and his angels with him,
so that He will judge, He who has power of the Judgement,
all humanity as to the merits each
has brought about in this brief life. (The Dream of the Rood, 101-109)
To Christians, the poem is reaffirmation of the price Christ paid for them and the promise that he will come again to call his people home.
Like The Dream of the Rood, the author of Everyman is unknown. However, instead of a poem, Everyman is a morality play. Although morality plays are more commonly found in the sixteenth century, a few are found from the late fifteenth century. Kate Warren defines a morality play as:
“‘a play enforcing a moral truth or lesson by means of the speech and action of characters which are personified abstractions — figures representing vices and virtues, qualities of the human mind, or abstract conceptions in general’, and, on the whole, that definition comprehends the main features of the Morality proper in its most characteristic form” (Warren).
In the morality Everyman, death is sent for Everyman and he [Everyman] is brought face to face with the realization of how much or how little Christian faith and morals is a part of his everyday life. In the play, Everyman represents one single man and his journey for redemption but also in the message the play delivers, Everyman represents mankind.
Everyman lives his life to the fullest. His only concerns are material things and worldly activities. He is not a professing Christian and God does not play a part in his life. Death comes for Everyman and a deal is made that he can bring some one with him on his journey to judgement. Unfortunately for Everyman, all that he thought was important deserted him in the end. Everyman says:
First Fellowship said he would with me gone:
His words were very pleasant and gay,
But afterward he left me alone.
Then spake I to my kinsmen, all in despair,
And also they gave me words fair-
They lacked no fair speaking,
But all forsake me in the ending.
Then I went to my Goods that I loved best,
In hope to have comfort; but there I had least,
For my Goods sharply did me tell
That he bringeth many into hell. (Everyman, lines 465-475)
Everyman realizes that he placed all his love and trust in the wrong things. In the end, he repents and asks for forgiveness to save his soul. God forgives him, and he avoids damnation to Hell. The Christian theme/moral is easily seen in the last few lines of the play:
For after death amends may no man make,
For then mercy and pity doth him forsake.
If his reckoning be not clear when he doth come,
God will say, “Ite, malediciti, in ignem eternum!”
And he that hath his account whole and sound,
High in heaven he shall be crowned. (Everyman 911-916)
Much of medieval literary works have a Christian theme or Christian values and morals are found throughout the work. For some works, the author and composition time may be unknown. For others, the author may have a Christian background such as being affiliated with a monastery. Either way, the Middle Ages are responsible for producing some of the most brilliant literary works of all time and the moral of the work is clearly stated. Whether Christian or non-believer, the Christian message or theme can be easily seen in the literature of this era.