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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

VII. From Alfred to the Conquest

§ 8. Legends of the Holy Rood

The early Christian legends, indeeds, and more particularly such as mark the continuance of Jewish traditions and the gradual diffusion of Christianity in the east, seem to have had a special attraction for English writers of this period. There are two legends connected with the Holy Rood—one with the growth of its wood, the other with the history of the cross after the crucifion. The legend of the Holy Rood itself is the same as the original story of Cynewulf’s poems. It will be remembered that St. Helena was reputed to be of British origin.

The oldest English version of the legend of the growth of the wood is found in a Ms. in the Bodleian (343), whichcontains also fifty-one homilies by Aelfric. The manuscript dates only from the twelfth century, but as the other contents are copies of eleventh century originals, it is reasonable to suppose that the cross legend also was composed at an earlier period. This theory is borne out by the language, which Napier considers too archaic for the twelfth century. From a literary point of view, as well as linguistically, the version is of the greatest interest, as showing the development of English prose. In its Original eleventh century form, it represented, perhaps, the best tradition of the literary West Saxon language developed in the cloisters, and the grace and ease of the story show considerable mastery of the art of narrative.

The theme ultimately depends on the Jewish legends contained in the Book of Adam and the Book of Enoch, and it had originally no connection with Christianity. The story frequently occurs in medieval literature (as, for instance, in the South English Legendary and the Cursor Mundi), and a brief outline of it may therefore be given here. Unfortunately the earlier part of the legend in its Latin form, treating of the history of the rood to the time of Moses, is missing in the English text. The story shapes itself as follows: Adam being on the point of death, Eve and Seth go to Paradise to ask the guardian angel for the healing oil of life. Seth, as fallen man, is denied entrance to Paradise, and instead of the oil the angel gives him three pips of cedar, cypress and pine. When Seth returns to his father, he finds Adam already dead; he places the three pips under Adam’s tongue, and, God having given Adam’s body to Michael, it is buried by the four archangels in Paradise. The pips fructify in the ground, and from them spring three rods, which remain green until the time of Moses. The Old English version begins at this point and tells how Moses, having led the children of Israel over the Red Sea, lies down to rest, and, in the morning, finds that three rods have sprung up, one at his head, and one at each side. With these rods he makes sweet the bitter waters, and the host continues its journey to Arabia. Hither David, whom the legend represents as contemporary with Moses, is sent to demand the rods, and it is revealed to him in a vision that they betoken the Trinity. He carries them to Jerusalem, where there is a pit of water so bitter that none can taste of it. The rods are placed in it, and they join together into a mighty tree, the growth of which is marked by silver rings. After the death of David, Solomon attempts to use the tree for the building of the Temple; but, owing to the fact that it continually alters in length, this proves impossible, and it remains untouched within the sanctuary. Finally, when the Jews seek for a tree on which to crucify Christ, they remember this rood, and use part of it for the cross.

The legend of the finding of the cross by St. Helena is entirely Christian in origin, and is cognate to the version in The Golden Legend of Jacobus a Voragine, and in the Bollandist Acta Sanctorum for the fourth of May, and it is the same theme as that treated so beautifully by Cynewulf in his Elene.

An important legend cycle, to which attention has recently been drawn, is that of the letter sent from Heaven on Sunday observance. It is found in Old English in four of Wulfstan’s homilies, and in two separate versions (C.C.C.C. 140 and 162). Of the legends printed by Cockayne, that of Jamnes and Mambres has quite a modern “physical” flavour. The fact of its being a mere fragment, and breaking off when just about to become dull, saves it in the eyes of all lovers of ghost-tales.