« PreviousContinue »
out by what Alcuin and Wulfstan have to say on its use in baptism. “The breast also,' says Alcuin, ‘is anointed with the same oil, so that the entrance for the devil is closed by the sign of the Holy Cross. The shoulder-blades are also signed, so that there may be a defense on all sides.' Wulfstan says: 'In the christening that one performs previous to baptism there is great significance. When the priest christeneth, he breathes on the man, then signs him in modum crucis. After that, through God's might, the devil becomes speedily much discouraged.'?
Of the use of the sign in particular rites there is no need of discussion here. As far as I can discover, its use in the various ceremonies of the Anglo-Saxon church was the same as in the Mother Church. It was used a countless number of times, giving sanctity and weight to every ritecommon to all and uniting them all.
But its usefulness was not confined within the walls of the church or monastery. It was the Christian's ready weapon for every time of need. Alcuin says, explaining why Christ chose crucifixion rather than some other form of death: 'He did not wish to be stoned or cut down by a sword, because we should not be able to carry always with us stones or a sword with which we should be protected. But he chose the cross, which is expressed by an easy movement of the hand, and with which we may be protected against the wiles of the enemy.' :
It was first of all a defense against the assaults of the devil. Bede, in his letter to Bishop Egbert, advises him to remind his flock with what frequent diligence to employ upon themselves the sign of our Lord's cross,'* and so to fortify themselves and all they have against the continued snares of unclean spirits. He recommends it especially as a safeguard against evil thoughts. Alcuin says that the first act
upon waking in the morning should be to mark upon the lips the sign of the cross.' Wulfstan says: ‘Be ever thy food and thy rest directed of God and blessed with the holy cross.'?
If the sign had not as yet become prescribed in the rite of supreme unction, the dying man himself fortified his passing spirit by the sign of hope. Bede, in his story of Cædmon's death, tells how the holy man, after he had signed himself with the sign of the holy cross, laid down his head upon the pillow, and fell asleep for awhile, and so in quiet ended his life.' *
Belief in the efficacy of this sign was supported by a great body of legends in which its powers as a talisman are most conspicuous. They point the moral that safety demands that it should accompany every act of life, and show that devils, the forces of nature, and the ills of the flesh, are all subject to the wonder-working sign.
It is only to be expected that, if so many had been healed of their ills in the past, the faithful and believing should look for its salutary powers for their own benefit in the present. So, very naturally, the sign of the cross invaded the province of medicine. The position of the church in regard to disease and cure by natural means was that diseases were the work of demons, that mediums are useless and contrary to what St. Ambrose declared was 'celestial science—watching and prayer.'* Among the Anglo-Saxons, however, the use of natural remedies was by no means despised, as the three volumes of Cockayne's Anglo-Saxon Leechdoms testify. Mingled with these natural remedies, however, are prescriptions in which theology also has a
* Patrolog. Lat. (Lib. de Psalm.) 101. 468.
*e. g. Blickl. Hom., p. 243; Ælfric, Hom. 3. 170; Alfred's Bede, p. 402, et al.
Quoted by A. D. White, Hist. Conflict Science and Theology 2. 26.
share, a sort of combination of the powers of earth and heaven. Others are purely religious charms, summoning the aid of the Evangelists, the letters A and e, and above all, the sign of the cross.”
Of course the demon-theory of disease and misfortune, and the method of cure by a charm or fetich, are common to all primitive peoples. The pagan Saxons had their formulas as well as the Christians, and in these Leechdoms are found curious mixtures of Christian and pagan fetich.
There are a few charms in which the cross to be made is an actual, material cross. A long charm for bewitched land mentions four crosses to be made of aspen. This charm contains a prayer which is significant in its conception of the cross. 'Commend thy prayer,' it runs, 'to the praise and glory of Christ and St. Mary, and the Holy Rood. This appears to give the cross a foremost place among the Saints, as if it had a sacred personality of its own. This idea of a divine personality in the true cross itself is further brought out in the charms for bringing back strayed or stolen cattle. As the true cross had been lost for centuries, and then discovered by Helena, it was deemed appropriate to invoke its aid in recovering that which was lost. The following is one of a group that differs only in unimportant details :
As soon as anyone says that thy cattle are lost, say first before thou say anything else,
Bethlehem was named the town where Christ was born.
It is renowned through all the world.
Through the Holy Rood of Christ. Amen. Then pray thrice toward the east, and say thrice, Crux Christi ab oriente reducat; then pray thrice toward the west and say thrice, Crux Christi ab occidente reducat; then pray thrice toward the south and say thrice, Crux Christi ab austro reducat; then pray thrice toward the north and say thrice, Crux Christi ab aquilone reducat. Crux Christi abscondita est et inventa est. The Jews cru
cified Christ, they did the worst of deeds, they hid that which they could not hide. So may this deed in no wise be hidden, through the Holy Rood of Christ. Amen.'
The most famous, and perhaps the simplest, of these crosscharms was the practice of 'touching for the King's evil,' which began with Edward the Confessor in 1041. Originally this touching was done simply by marking upon the sufferer the sign of the cross.
. (b) As an Oath It had been a pagan custom to begin all important acts, public or private, by a religious ceremony, as, for example, a sacrifice. So the Christians for the same acts crossed themselves, swore upon relics, and in their legal and ecclesiastical documents invoked the name of God. In the fifth century began the custom of applying a cross-mark at the beginning of documents, in the place of invocations, and at the end beside the name of the signer, as a guarantee of good faith. This custom must have come to the AngloSaxons with the introduction of Christianity.
In this usage the sign of the cross' was, of course, not the invisible sign made in the air or upon the body with the finger or hand. It was a form in which the crux exemplata and the crux usualis seem to have blended. But there seems to have been no distinction felt between the marking of a cross with ink upon a document or the marking of the invisible cross. Each was called the signum or vexillum crucis, the rõde tācn, or Cristes mæl.
The wording to the conclusions to these documents makes it clear that the Anglo-Saxon understood its use as a means of binding the terms of an agreement by an inviolable oath. For example, in a charter of Wihtred's of the year 697 • it is written: ‘This gift the hands of all present confirm with the
3 Codex Dipl. 1. 49.
sign of the cross, so that upon him who is so bold as to break it contrary to the will of God will come in vengeance the cross of Christ, unless he make amends in due order.
The method of signing was as follows: After the donor had pledged himself by a solemn vow, such as the one just quoted, he made the cross, and signed his name immediately after it. Then followed the witnesses, each with a cross and his name. The churchmen who stood as witnesses were generally not content with a simple cross and signature, but exercised the greatest ingenuity in devising honorific expressions for the phrase 'the sign of the cross.' The following are a few selected from scores of varieties : ‘Signum mirabile beatæ crucis,' 'vexillum adorandæ crucis,' ' vexillum sacratissimæ crucis,'triumphale tropheum agya crucis,'' signaculum almæ crucis,'' and 'signum sanctæ semperque venerandæ crucis.'? These expressions of themselves suggest the commanding position held by the cross in the church of this period.
On the other hand, nobles who were witnesses were, as a rule, quite content to sign themselves simply by the cross. This served also as a convenient method of signature for kings and nobles who could not write; indeed, from this ancient custom the illiterate make their 'mark’to this day. In these signatures the clerk inserted the name after the cross was made, and often worked up the cross-mark afterward into a symmetrical figure. In many cases it is evident that the cross was drawn beforehand by the clerk, and the donor or witness took oath either by tracing his finger or pen over the cross already drawn, or by pressing his fingers upon it. There are many charters in which, apparently, not all the witnesses that were expected were present, as there stand a number of crosses with no signature attached. In the following frank acknowledgment of King Wihtred's the same custom is seen. He says: "With my own hand I
*Codex Dipl. 2. 97, 176, 201. 'e. g. Codex Dipl. 1. 321.