Et de ligno sanguis stillabit. [Blood shall drip from wood.]
4 Ezra 5.5
The above verse is from the Fourth Book of Ezra, one of the Apocrypha, and it inspired a creepy depiction of the natural world on Judgment Day in the Old English poem Christ III. The poem, the third part of a cycle on the history of Christ, draws also draws upon the Revelation of John and writings of the early Church Fathers. Only one copy of the poem survives today in the Exeter Book, a manuscript dated palaeographically (based on the style of handwriting) to the second half of the 10th century.
Ða wearð beam monig blodigum tearum / birunnen under rindum reade ond þicce; / sæp wearð to swate.
[Then many a tree became bedewed with bloody tears under their bark, red and thick; the sap was turned to blood.]
Christ III, lines 1174-76a
As sinful human beings become less human morally in their behaviour, the trees become more human physically by their bleeding.
The Dream of the Rood, an Old English poem in the Vercelli Book (of similar date to the Exeter Book), is told in two voices: the voice of a (presumably human) narrator who is dreaming/envisioning/imagining the rood, or cross, upon which Jesus was crucified; and the voice of the rood itself. The cross tells its own story, starting from when it was just another tree in the forest – nothing special. Then God made that tree special by singling it out for the honour of being the instrument of Christ’s death. A different sort of Anglo-Saxon hero, the cross must go against its own instinct and sense of loyalty and not fight to protect its lord.
When the unknown poet describes blood on the cross, it is not always clear whether the blood is coming from Christ’s body or from the wood body of this butchered tree. The narrating ‘dreamer’ sees the rood soaked with the flow of blood – but whose blood? The cross describes its torture at the hands of the Romans, saying:
Þurhdrifan hi me mid deorcan næglum; on me syndon ϸa dolg gesiene, / opene inwidhlemmas.
[They drove dark nails through me; my injuries were made visible, open wounds of malice.]
The Dream of the Rood, lines 46-47a
The tree, like Christ, is murdered. The tree, like Christ, bleeds. The tree, like Christ, will be worshipped by Christians ever after…in the form of a cross, of course.
This medieval ‘snapshot’ of what it means to be human is one of a series to inspire Karrie Fransman’s medieval comics artwork. To read more, go to project + snapshots.
Dr Hana Videen (@beoshewulf) teaches medieval literature at King’s College London. She was awarded funding by the Cultural Institute at King’s to lead the Medieval Comics project, collaborating with comic artist Karrie Fransman. She reimagines medieval animals with artist James Merry through her Deorhord project (@deorhord), and she tweets the Old English Word of the Day (@OEWordhord).