The Rood in Medieval Britain and Ireland, c.800-c.1500

The cross is ubiquitous in medieval Christian iconography. As it was on the cross that Jesus died, bringing believers salvation, it is a critical component of the religion. But, despite the ubiquity and apparent simplicity of the instantly recognisable form, it has lent itself to substantial variation throughout history. The period covered by this new book – from the 9th to the 16th century – is no exception. In the early medieval period, for instance, Christ is depicted as a triumphant figure on the cross; later, a more empathic humanised figure, suffering the horrors of crucifixion, becomes more prevalent.

In English scholarship, the term ‘rood’ is used to refer to a monumental crucifix in a church, positioned at the boundary between the nave and the choir or chancel, but in the medieval period the same word, and also the Latin crux (cross), describes all manner of crosses in all manner of contexts. Following this broad interpretation of the rood, this volume, edited by art historians Philippa Turner and Jane Hawkes, brings together chapters by different researchers on the plethora of crosses in medieval Britain and Ireland: monumental Anglo-Saxon stone crosses that stand in the open air, crosses that appear in writing, metalwork, wood, paint, and more.

The link between crosses and identity is a fruitful topic for discussion, touched on by a number of chapters in The Rood in Medieval Britain and Ireland. For example, the Franciscan friaries of Ireland made use of cross imagery and also plant imagery pertaining to the Tree of Life, which linked them to their brothers elsewhere in Europe. Most of the book is, as its title suggests, devoted to Britain and Ireland, but one chapter takes us further afield to consider the cruceiros, the stone crosses of Galicia in northern Spain. As seen in the scholarship of Alfonso Daniel Rodríguez Castelao, who studied the stone crosses of Brittany and Galicia in the early 20th century, these cruceiros were linked to those in Ireland and co-opted into discourses of Galician nationalism, as signifiers of a distinct cultural identity, different from the rest of Spain.

Elsewhere, we encounter crosses beyond visual representations, in the realm of medicine. One chapter gives an informative account of the use of the cross in medical remedies, highlighting the pervasiveness of the cross in different aspects of medieval life. Some remedies instruct those seeking relief from various diseases to prepare a drink made using lichen removed from a – presumably stone – cross. Pieces of wood cut from a cross could similarly be added to water, then sprinkled on or drunk by the patient. And to deal with lung disease in cattle and barren fields, making a cross out of plant material forms part of the course of treatment.

With detailed studies and a broad range of perspectives, the book invites new ways of looking at this motif found all over medieval Europe.

Review by Lucia Marchini.
The Rood in Medieval Britain and Ireland, c.800-c.1500, edited by Philippa Turner and Jane Hawkes, Boydell & Brewer, £60, Hardback, ISBN 978-1783275526.