The Impact of Early British Literature and Shifting Religious Views on the Content and Style of the Middle Age Literature

In Early British Literature, religion and shifting religious views fundamentally impacted the content and style of the literature composed. This is due in large part to the close relationship between Christianity and literature, stemming from the high levels of literacy associated with the monks of Christian temples and monasteries who had mastered the craft of calligraphy through long hours of copying the sacred text onto manuscript after manuscript. Religion plays an important role in the development of literature and literacy throughout the Middle Ages, as those who were literate held an upper hand over those who were not.

The Roman Catholic Church held an inherent advantage over the general population via near-sole control of the manufacture of literature. This advantage, and the absolute power which the Church held over the population – and the state of their soul’s – is reflected by the religious overtones that pervade the literature of the period. The Church, and the struggles between the Church and the native Pagan religion, are portrayed either directly or they are alluded to; regardless, these values play heavily into the content and plot in early British literature.

The first work of interest may also be chronologically the first, as this poem was discovered in a late tenth-century manuscript in northern Italy, but certain passages of the poem have been found that date all the way back to eighth-century Scotland; suggesting that “Dream of the Rood” was composed in the early days of Anglo-Saxon Christianity. “The Dream of The Rood” uses an interesting person-within-a-person point of view through the lens of a dream to convey a very liberal, almost ‘paganized’, version of Christianity that is designed to be more appealing to the so-called brutes of Britain.

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The narrator appeals to the values most respected in the warring pagan world by personifying the Rood as a warrior who exemplifies heroism, loyalty, and bravery throughout a long period of torment in complete isolation. “Then I did not dare act against the Lord’s word/bow down or fall to pieces when I felt the surface/of the earth trembling. Although I might have destroyed the foes, I stood in place” (Dream of the Rood, Lines 35-38). Although the Cross longs to, and is more than capable of destroying the soldiers that are crucifying Jesus, the Cross restrains himself and loyally honors the request of his Lord, while still suffering from his own wounds. “The Dream of the Rood” appeals to the values of ancient British society successfully with this approach to the characterization of the tree, and further succeeds by treating the character of the Cross as a warrior, and following the warrior’s experiences like the story of an epic battle between admirable foes.

Appeals upon appeals are made to Anglo-Saxon culture, but not without a heavy Christian influence as well; as Christianity had embedded itself within Britain as is corroborated by the relationship between “The Dream of the Rood” and the Nicene Creed. Anthony R. Grasso explores the nature of early Christianity in Britain, particularly the topic of the Nicene Creed, concluding that “the introduction of the Creed “in its actual position after the Gospel” by Celtic monks into the Anglo-Saxon liturgy during the seventh and eighth centuries. Their custom involved reciting the Creed at daily Mass and singing it on Sundays. He too records that Alcuin transmitted this practice to Charlemagne’s court as early as 798 C.E.” (Grasso 24). Grasso concludes that the Anglo-Saxons had conformed to the Nicene Creed on multiple occasions, most notably at the Council of Hatfield in 679/680 (there are debates on the exact date due to major changes in the way things were recorded chronologically during the time period, and simultaneous use of old and new methods of record keeping) (Blair 24-25). Anthony R. Grasso and Blair agree on the Nicene Creed being prevalent in Anglo-Saxon Christianity during the creation of “The Dream of the Rood”, and Grasso goes on to discuss how the poem quotes the Nicene Creed, in large part, word for word; resembling the phrasing, pattern, and structure of the Nicene Creed to an extent that it is abundantly clear of the Creed’s influence of the content of “The Dream of the Rood”. The struggle and balance between Pagan and Christian values greatly affects the plot of “The Dream of the Rood”, and this poem is not alone in this balancing act. God and the Devil both helped write “Beowulf”.

The first record of “Beowulf” comes from the Mercia-Midlands area of Britain, the manuscript dating back to the late tenth-century. This Olde English Long Epic Poem, the lone survivor of its genre, is similar to “The Dream of the Rood” in that it has both Pagan and Christian influences, but they influence “Beowulf” in much different ways. “Beowulf” is written in a revival of an old, heroic, Germanic language to encompass the style and feel of the Pagan world, although it was written in Christian times. “Beowulf” is nearly the inverse of “The Dream of the Rood”; one was written in what were still basically Pagan times in a Christian style, while the other was written in Christian times but in a Pagan style. Christianity, God, brought literature to Britain and helped to influence both the creation of and many of the plot points of “Beowulf”; but the Pagan devils brought the story from an earlier, scarier, time where heroism and loyalty were valued above all else. Hamilton eloquently explains the dilemma the author faces with his chosen style, and the way in which he solves this problem: in recasting his heathen tales is an arresting feature of the transformed narrative, and no small factor in the problem of interpretation. Whereas the Englishman and his circle could not have tolerated a hero loyal to Woden and Thunor, they would not have understood a man with no religious allegiance. At the same time, lovers of heroic verse who were equipped to follow ‘Beowulf’ in its bridled allusions, its irony, and its rich vocabulary could hardly have relished a story presenting Scandinavians of pre-conversion days as orthodox Catholics… The Beowulf-poet may be resolving the dilemma when he avoids reference to Christian worship or the saints and merely represents his nobler agents as intelligent monotheists (Hamilton 310). “Beowulf” tells the story of a time long past, in which the land is pagan; but the protagonist of the story, Beowulf himself, references the power of Christ before and after his battle with the monster Grendel, “And the Geat placed complete trust/in his strength of limb and the Lord’s favor… And may the Divine Lord/in His wisdom grant the glory of victory/to whichever side he sees fit” (Beowulf, Lines 670-683). Beowulf himself is a Christian, which seems to grant him the special abilities and invulnerability associated with heroes in pagan literature. God gave Beowulf the Devil’s powers, but only so that he could use them for good. Beowulf single-handedly bests a monster that has terrorized Heorot’s strongest warriors for over a decade, and he does it bare handed with the strength of the Lord. Beowulf has the powers, traits, and features of a prototypical Anglo-Saxon hero, and he does it for the same reason as one; but, Beowulf’s power comes from his belief and his good character, which is associated with his strength, honor, bravery, and self-sacrifice. Beowulf single-handedly embodies the best of the pagan traits, and the best of the Christian traits, resulting in a truly epic poem.

The Church, and the struggles between the Church and the native Pagan religion, are portrayed either directly or they are alluded to; regardless, these values play heavily into the content and plot in early British literature. “The Dream of the Rood” portrays Christian values in a pagan time in an attempt to interest pagans in converting to Christianity, and to help them to become more familiar with it. “Beowulf” on the other is using pagan values, themes, and stories to keep literate Christians interested in the plot, as well as to reinforce the concept that Christians are rewarded for their belief through the glory of God; like when God helps to protect and strengthen Beowulf in his fight against Grendel. The Middle Ages encompassed major changes and shifts in religious views, and the impact was far-reaching. God and the Devil wrote both “Beowulf” and “The Dream of the Rood” resulting in some similarities and some differences in the effects on the resulting literature, which reflects the shifting power and influence of the religions of the time period. Christianity and Paganism worked together to create some of the most influential literature of all time. God and the Devil counter-balanced each other, and together they created stories that captured the intrigue of all people, Christian and Pagan alike.

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The Impact of Early British Literature and Shifting Religious Views on the Content and Style of the Middle Age Literature. (2022, May 10). Retrieved from

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