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    PloughCast 54: Eleanor Parker on Anglo-Saxon Christianity

    Pain and Passion, Part 5

    By Eleanor Parker, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    April 12, 2023

    About This Episode

    An Oxford medievalist discusses the Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood. Peter and Susannah bring on Eleanor Parker to discuss this poetic portrayal of the crucifixion from the point of view of the cross.

    They discuss the medieval vision of the world, linked as it was to the cycles of the seasons, and talk about the way that nineteenth century speculations about the Pagan roots of Easter reveal a misunderstanding of the Anglo-Saxon worldview. The desire to connect to nature that is at the root of the search for putative pagan origins overlooks the way in which Christianity and Judaism themselves are deeply rooted in the natural world.

    Dr. Parker then gives listeners a brief tour of the Springtime of the Anglo-Saxon year, and tells us what her favorite Spring holiday is.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Section I: The Speaking Tree

    Peter Mommsen: Welcome back to the PloughCast! This is the fifth episode in our new series, covering our Pain and Passion issue. I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief at Plough.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough. In this episode, we’ll be speaking with PloughCast repeat offender Eleanor Parker. Dr. Parker teaches medieval literature at Brasenose College, Oxford, and is the author of Dragon Lords: The History and Legends of Viking England (2018) and Conquered: The Last ­Children of Anglo-Saxon England (2022), as well as, most recently, Winters in the World: A Journey through the Anglo-Saxon Year. She also is a legendary tweeter, at @ClerkofOxford.

    Hear while I tell about the best of dreams
    Which came to me the middle of one night
    While humankind were sleeping in their beds.
    It was as though I saw a wondrous tree
    Towering in the sky suffused with light,
    Brightest of beams; and all that beacon was
    Covered with gold. The corners of the earth
    Gleamed with fair jewels, just as there were five
    Upon the cross-beam. Many bands of angels,
    Fair throughout all eternity, looked on.
    No felon’s gallows that, but holy spirits,
    Mankind, and all this marvellous creation,
    Gazed on the glorious tree of victory.
    And I with sins was stained, wounded with guilt.
    I saw the tree of glory brightly shine
    In gorgeous clothing, all bedecked with gold.
    The Ruler’s tree was worthily adorned
    With gems; yet I could see beyond that gold
    The ancient strife of wretched men, when first
    Upon its right side it began to bleed.

    So that was the beginning of an Anglo-Saxon poem called The Dream of the Rood. And we have with us Eleanor Parker, who has written a piece for our current issue about that poem, and she is going to recite the same bit-

    Peter Mommsen: All about gems and blood and tenth-century Anglo-Saxon stuff.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. So she’s going to recite the same bit, but in the original, which I don’t have it in me to do. So welcome Eleanor, and go for it.

    Eleanor Parker: OK, thank you.

    Hwæt, iċ swefna cyst     secgan wylle,
    hwæt mē ġemǣtte     tō midre nihte
    syðþan reordberend     reste wunedon.
    Þūhte mē þæt iċ ġesāwe     syllicre trēow
    on lyft lǣdan,     lēohte bewunden,
    bēama beorhtost.     Eall þæt bēacen wæs
    begoten mid golde;     ġimmas stōdon
    fæġere æt foldan scēatum;     swylċe þǣr fīfe wǣron
    uppe on þām eaxleġespanne.     Behēoldon þǣr enġel Dryhtnes ealle
    fæġere þurh forðġesceaft.     Ne wæs ðǣr hūru fracodes ġealga,
    ac hine þǣr behēoldon     hāliġe gāstas,
    men ofer moldan,     ond eall þēos mǣre ġesceaft.
    Sylliċ wæs se siġebēam     ond iċ synnum fāh,
    forwunded mid wommum.     Ġeseah iċ wuldres trēow
    wǣdum ġeweorðode,     wynnum scīnan,
    ġeġyred mid golde;     ġimmas hæfdon
    bewriġene weorðlīċe     Wealdendes trēow.
    Hwæðre iċ þurh þæt gold     onġytan meahte
    earmra ǣrġewin,     þæt hit ǣrest ongan
    swǣtan on þā swīðran healfe.  

    Peter Mommsen: Wow. So I’m just trying to put myself into the world in which those words were written, Eleanor. I mean, Christianity is still pretty new and there’s this tree speaking to me. What are the first hearers hearing, and who are they?

    Eleanor Parker: Well, as you say, this is a time when Christianity is a couple of generations old. That’s probably when the first version of this poem was written, and what we’ve got here is this very strange vision. Someone’s asleep or whatever in the middle of the night, and it’s dark and it’s all very silent, and then all of a sudden there’s this giant tree that’s glowing with light and you don’t know what to make of it, first of all. There’s this strange sense of, “Well, what exactly is this that the person is seeing?” And this is before the tree even starts to speak. So it’s all very weird and it’s meant to be weird. I think that is the point of it.

    Peter Mommsen: Of course, this is a world without artificial light. It’s quiet. There’s probably big stretches of uninhabited country around, and this tree comes in. It sounds pagan actually.

    Eleanor Parker: It’s definitely weird.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah.

    Eleanor Parker: It’s supernatural, what’s going on here?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. But there’s a “got you” in this poem, which is – do you want to describe the “got you” and how the poet builds this suspense about – he refers to it initially as a tree, and then there’s a turn.

    Eleanor Parker: So all of the language in the description that you were just reading and I was reading is about a tree or maybe a beacon, a fire beacon or something. And so it’s not really clear what exactly this person is seeing. It’s a tree, but it’s also not a tree at the same time. And then as he lies there, just looking at it and trying to take in this vision, all of a sudden the tree begins to speak and he realizes, and we realize with him that actually this is a specific tree: It’s the cross of Christ.

    And it begins to tell the story of the crucifixion through its own memories, what it experienced, what it perceived on the day of the crucifixion, and then what happened to it afterwards. So the tree becomes the way into thinking about the story of Christ’s death and resurrection through this strange tree persona.

    Peter Mommsen: And at the same time . . . I mean, right from the beginning, both these things, it’s covered in gold and gems and yet it’s bleeding.

    Eleanor Parker: Yeah. It’s very much this doubleness, this sense of shame and suffering and pain, but also glory and beauty and triumph at the same time.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So the tree among other things, gives a bit of a theology of the crucifixion. The tree gives an account of what happened on it. In the words of the tree, how did the Anglo-Saxons understand what was going on in the crucifixion?

    Eleanor Parker: Yeah. So the tree then goes on to talk about, it describes the particular events surrounding the crucifixion, but it doesn’t give you a lot of backstory. It assumes, to some degree, that you know the story going in otherwise it wouldn’t make sense to you. So it’s not just telling the story in a way that’s communicating, “OK, this is what happened when Christ was crucified.” It focuses very much on the moment of his death.

    And the way that the poem presents it is that the cross describes Christ as a young warrior who climbs up the tree. He’s not just lifted up passively, but like he’s mounting a horse or something going into battle, so it’s very much this sense that he has chosen this death. And the cross describes Christ’s suffering and the blood, and the pain and everything. But there’s very much a sense that Christ remains a very powerful figure and that he retains all of his powers as God, even as he’s choosing to suffer, so that kind of key theological point is conveyed in that sense through the eyes of the cross. The cross itself is powerless and subject to what’s being done to it, but Christ retains his godhead and his divinity right through.

    Susannah Black Roberts: According to what you described in the piece in the medieval and earlier understanding of the cross, it was very frequently referred to as a tree, and that is of course, also a biblical idea. There’s the idea of “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” But the way that this works in the poem is a layering of typology, is how it seems to me. Can you describe what some of that typology is and how some of those images work with the biblical images?

    Eleanor Parker: Yeah. As you say, this is very much the biblical understanding focusing on the fact that the cross is a tree, partly because it’s a mirror image of the tree in the garden of Eden. So you’ve got this story of the myth of the Fall which comes through the tree, and then the redemption that comes through the tree as well. And it’s really very common in medieval images or descriptions of the crucifixion to present it very much as a living tree. Not to allow you to forget that aspect of the story.

    And I think we are familiar with modern images of the crucifixion where it is just planks of wood basically, but medieval cross images have leaves and branches and things, and they might still be rooted in the earth or surrounded by other trees or something. So there’s very much this sense that the tree was a living creature and in some sense still is a living creature and therefore, that it’s part of creation, it’s part of the created world, and it’s through this natural object, this natural being that Christ has chosen to sacrifice himself and redeem the world. So that idea of working through creation is a very important part of the story too.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And you even went on to talk about the way that the cross and Mary are associated with each other in various ways.

    Eleanor Parker: Yeah, that’s right. So that’s another aspect which is very, very widespread in medieval ways of thinking about the crucifixion that Mary too is someone who’s part of creation. She’s a human being, but it was through her body that God chose to come into the world, and so you’ve got this parallel between the tree and Mary: these created beings who have this role to play in salvation. And both, as these poems often explore, with some sense of, they know what’s happening, they know what part they’re playing, but also they have a very, in another sense, rather limited perspective, naturally a limited human (or tree) perspective. They’re not divine, they are just part of nature, so they’re a way into thinking about this story for medieval readers to be able to comprehend the mystery of what’s happening here. One way to do that is to think through the perspective of the cross or through the reaction of Mary as she watched her son die. It provides an entry point into the story.

    Peter Mommsen: You mentioned, not in this particular poem, but there is this tradition of a dialogue between Mary and the cross where both express their anguish at Christ’s death.

    Eleanor Parker: Yeah. Where they almost even argue with each other. Actually, it’s a debate poem because they’re both so emotionally distressed. They’ve witnessed the crucifixion, they’ve seen Christ die on there, so they’re hurt and angry and upset at what seems to be this terrible injustice. Mary is presented as really angry, as blaming the cross, saying, “How could you let this happen? How could you be the instrument of my son’s death?” And the cross is saying, “Well, I didn’t choose to do it. I was grieving as well. I didn’t want this to happen, but I had to do what I was told to do.” So you’ve got this sense of, almost, these characters caught up in a story that they only half understand, and they’re still very much wedded to their human perspective and their emotional investment, their relationship with Christ, and they can’t understand the bigger picture yet at this point in that story.

    Section II: The Animate World

    Susannah Black Roberts: So you talked actually in your last podcast with us, which I’ll drop a link to, about this vision of Christ as a warrior, but there’s also this vision of the world as an animate place, as though the world itself, nature itself has much more personality than we might contemporarily think of it as having. Can you say more about that? Is that just a poetic conceit or is this something that Anglo-Saxons took seriously and believed about the natural world?

    Eleanor Parker: I mean, it pervades the poetry, but it’s not just a poetic conceit. It is something that reflects their sense of what the natural world is and what the human relationship is to it. And it’s a very close one, very much an understanding of the world that sees human beings as inextricably bound to nature, natural cycles. We depend on the natural world for our food and our survival. And I mean, there just isn’t this more modern sense of human beings on one side and then the natural world, there’s something totally separate that we are distinct from and maybe use or exploit for our purposes or whatever. It’s much more this more holistic sense of what I was saying about creation, this sense that human beings are created like all creatures of nature, are also part of God’s creation. And so of course, human beings participate in a lot of the same processes that nature experiences. We can see our own experiences reflected in the natural world, so it’s a really very close relationship.

    Peter Mommsen: There’s this great image you refer to, and I think in the version of your piece that’s online, you can actually see an example of that – so listeners, check that out – of Christ crucified on a lily, just this amazing sense that all of nature is summoned to help tell the story of the gospel.

    Eleanor Parker: Yeah. That’s a lovely image, and that goes back to this relationship with Mary and the cross, that sense of a parallel because the lily is Mary’s flower, and one of the places where you see these images of Christ crucified on a lily is often in maybe an annunciation scene. So you’ve got the angel and Mary and then a lily, which has a mini crucifix on it or in it. So it really blends those two moments in one sense, the beginning and end of Christ’s life on earth, and brings them together in this quite beautiful, but also horrifying image. It’s an image of pain and death, but also an image of life and birth at the same time.

    Peter Mommsen: What does it mean that the poem presents Christ as a warrior? I mean, cynically you could say this is just Christian clergy trying to co-opt an idea of what’s manly in the culture, and they want to present Christ in a way that people won’t look down on in this very warrior culture, but this actually brings out a pretty strong emotional resonance that might not be apparent. You mentioned a parallel to Beowulf and the bond between the warrior and his followers.

    Eleanor Parker: Yeah, definitely. It’s partly about drawing on images of strength and power that already exist in the culture and trying to bring those into the Christian story and to make the Christian story meaningful for people who are really invested in this kind of warrior masculine culture.

    But I think it is also about the relationships that Anglo-Saxon poets attach most value to in a way. And one of those relationships is the bond between a man, a king, a warrior, whatever, and his men, his followers; the people who’ve basically sworn to follow him to the death, and that’s the way that the relationship between Christ and the cross is presented, and the cross is in this very difficult position because it really has this love for Christ. It wants to be with him. It has this very intimate kind of relationship with him as they die together, essentially, at the crucifixion, but also it knows that it’s been forced to be the instrument of his death. It calls itself his slayer. It’s been forced to become Christ’s slayer, so it has this sense of guilt as well as its love, these tortured emotions which make that a really powerful part of the poem.

    Peter Mommsen: Some housekeeping: Don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasting needs met! We’ll be back with the rest of our conversation with Eleanor Parker after the break.

    Section III: The Christian Roots of Easter

    Susannah Black Roberts: So it seems like part of that closeness to nature and that sense of humans being an inextricable part of the natural world has to do with the cycle of the year which is a natural cycle, of course, and is also the cycle of liturgical year. We’re recording this just after the Annunciation actually, which it’s the day on which everything happens according to, I think Tom Holland just tweeted this. So what else happens . . .

    Peter Mommsen: March 25th.

    Susannah Black Roberts: March 25th. What else happens on March 25th?

    Eleanor Parker:  So this is something that early medieval scholars of the calendar worked out that the 25th of March was the historical date of the crucifixion, so that’s how they calculated it, that Christ died at Passover, so that means you can work out, he died on a particular date and they figured in the Julian calendar, that would be March 25th. And so from that, they then worked backwards to assign other important dates to March 25th, such as the Annunciation. And then I think what Tom Holland was referencing is that, Tolkien too made March 25 the day on which the ring is destroyed, so a very nice parallel to the crucifixion there. So Tolkien knew his medieval calendars for sure.

    Susannah Black Roberts: But we’re actually going to be releasing this the week after Easter, so Easter week, and that will be Eastertide and will get us into another sort of tide, which I had not heard of that you mentioned earlier on. Where are we in the year? Where are your listeners right now in the Anglo-Saxon year?

    Eleanor Parker: So Eastertide is the period, of course, that comes after Easter. You get Lent, which is a long . . . I think it would’ve felt very long in the Middle Ages for sure because in the Anglo-Saxon period, in the medieval period, generally Lent was a time of a really serious proper fast. And then once you get to Easter, those fasting restrictions are lifted, and you can properly celebrate and feast and enjoy yourself. And then Eastertide runs for forty days and runs up to Ascension day, and what we were talking about earlier, so just before Ascension day, you get this kind of mini season, three days called Rogationtide.

    And in the medieval church, that was a time for this particular custom of going on processions, taking relics or holy objects out of the church and going in procession around the local area, praying, blessing, preaching sermons, getting together as a parish community at a different places in the local landscape, and in a sense sanctifying them, blessing them, and often specifically blessing the growing crops, which obviously are starting to spring up. By the time you get to Rogationtide, it’s usually May or that time of year. So you’re looking ahead to the harvest, you’re hoping for a good harvest, praying for a good harvest, but also enjoying this moment of Easter celebration, Ascension Day and the celebration in this sense of Christ’s triumph, and summer and its flourishing, its highest point are going together at that point in the calendar.

    Peter Mommsen: So a big part of this is again, that connection to nature, to growing things, which is missing maybe from our ways of thinking about Easter to some degree.

    Eleanor Parker: Yeah. I think we’ve forgotten that there’s a reason that Easter is in the spring. It seems like it’s just an accident, but it’s not at all.

    Peter Mommsen: This is completely superficial and there’s zero relationship to Anglo-Saxon in anything, but there is this great custom in Germany where I lived for seven years, at least in parts of it, of Ascension Day. It’s essentially just groups of guys. The tradition is that you go out into the woods for the day and just hike from place to place.

    Eleanor Parker: That’s nice.

    Peter Mommsen: And it really is just a beautiful time of year. I suppose the original Christian inspiration for this was that Jesus and the disciples go out to a wilderness place and that’s where the Ascension happens. Of course, that long since been forgotten in the midst of beer drinking. Is that at all Anglo-Saxon?

    Eleanor Parker: I feel like that’s probably something similar to Rogationtide, really it’s this same impulse to just get outside and enjoy the good weather and the countryside, and if you have a religious reason for doing so, all the better, but . . .

    Peter Mommsen: Right.

    Eleanor Parker: It’s basically an excuse to go outside.

    Peter Mommsen: It’s an excuse.

    Eleanor Parker: Right.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’m wondering whether we can go back to March 21st, which is the solstice, and there was this goofy tweet from Stonehenge’s official Twitter account, which troubles me on so many levels, but it was about pagans or Neo-Druids doing some ritual at Stonehenge, and the sort of a celebration of this renewal of interest in English paganism or paganism on this island anyway.

    Peter Mommsen: Yes, Eleanor. That also struck me that there’s this desire to reconnect with the natural world that is today packaged as Neo-paganism. And you’ve done some fascinating tweeting and writing about this question of, there’s this claim, “Easter is actually a pagan holiday if we’d only get back to the real thing.” Could you talk a little about that? Is Easter originally a Pagan holiday? What’s the relationship of the Anglo-Saxon Christian way of approaching these things to what people think about as pagan today?

    Eleanor Parker: Yeah. So the thing is, there’s this myth essentially which has developed about the idea of the pagan origins of Easter. So the one thing that you can say is pagan about Easter, it’s just the English name only. So the English name Easter comes from, maybe, an Anglo-Saxon goddess called Ēostre who might have been celebrated around this time of year around the spring equinox, but that’s just the name. And it’s only the name in English because other languages have other names, like Pascha, which are often much more related to Passover, so much more clearly Christian.

    And because the English name for Easter has these kind of maybe pagan origins, there are lots of theories and myths that have developed about what might have been borrowed from this kind of hypothetical pagan festival like, “Do we eat eggs at Easter because eggs were sacred to goddess Ēostre or something?” And that doesn’t really reflect anything that’s based in the Anglo-Saxon or early medieval evidence. Things like eating eggs at Easter can just as well be explained by the fact that you didn’t eat eggs during the Lenten fast, and so then at Easter you did start to eat eggs again, and so worth celebrating. It doesn’t have to . . .

    Peter Mommsen: Those eggs tasted really good!

    Eleanor Parker: Exactly. I mean, after the fast of Lent, I think everything probably tasted pretty good. So there’s this tendency to want to locate pagan origins for things that actually probably have more mundane explanations. And I do think it is what Susannah was saying about this desire that people have to, it’s totally understandable. People want to find a spirituality that feels like it’s in touch with nature, with seasonal cycles, which do mean a lot to people. And they feel like, well, Christianity doesn’t do that. Christianity doesn’t offer that, so probably whatever we see in Christianity that seems seasonal, like a spring festival, is probably really pagan, but actually that’s not true of medieval Christianity. It was really very integrated with seasonal cycles because just medieval life was generally, you couldn’t have a religion that was divorced from things like the cycles of agriculture. So you don’t have to look for pagan borrowings as an explanation for that. That’s just what medieval culture was like.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And of course, that’s also what biblical culture was like.

    Eleanor Parker: Absolutely.

    Susannah Black Roberts: To pretend that the Hebrew liturgical year had nothing to do with cycles of nature or harvest festivals or all the things that people want to get from renewals of imaginative recreations of paganism is to ignore the basic that this is a human thing, this is natural. It would be bizarre if it weren’t the case that these things were embedded in the liturgical year of these religions.

    Eleanor Parker: Yeah. Because it’s true of most religions that there’s some aspect of seasonal festivals. And I think specifically with Christianity, part of the myth is almost about a wish to among, especially ninteenth century historians really wanted to downplay anything in the Christian calendar that had Jewish roots. They were often really uncomfortable with the idea of making that link too strongly and they’re almost happier saying, “Oh, it’s probably pagan,” rather than exactly what you’re talking about, those biblical harvest festivals for instance or the timing of Passover. These are things they weren’t as happy talking about, so they invent pagan roots because it’s like, “Oh yeah, it’s probably just that.”

    Peter Mommsen: Well, it’s the whole phenomenon of The Golden Bough, that James George Frazer book from 1890, of just reinventing . . . I mean, it is no accident too that this interest happened around the time of the industrial revolution, or a generation or two afterwards. And people are just trying to, it seems to me, reconnect with nature in a way that it’s a little . . . you kind of have to invent this pagan mythology to justify it.

    Eleanor Parker: Yeah. It was only necessary because we had become separated from nature. I guess, it’s that sense of a distance, and so people found it hard to imagine what was the case in medieval Christianity, a kind of religion that’s really deeply embedded in the natural world because that’s not maybe what their own experience was. And perhaps, that’s how it is for a lot of people now that we feel distant from nature so we think, “Oh yeah, probably they were in the past as well,” but actually it’s our experience that’s unusual on the historical scale.

    Susannah Black Roberts: In terms of the ideas of typology and the way that typology works, Lewis had a great thing about, is Easter a springtime festival of growing grain? And he was like, “Well, what came first is God’s plan for Christ to be crucified and to resurrect, and so the resurrection of Christ is actually the first thing. And then after that, God ordered creation to imitate that resurrection in Spring, and then pagan harvest festivals came along to recognize that there was a resurrection going on, and so the ordering of what came first, the resurrection of Jesus or pagan harvest festivals or indeed the literal cycle of grains falling into the earth and then springing up is reversed in a typological understanding of reality. Is that something like the way that Anglo-Saxons would have thought of it or how would they have thought of this?

    Eleanor Parker: Yeah. I think that does reflect the way they would’ve thought about it. They would’ve thought of it as, “Christianity doesn’t take its images from the natural world. The natural world is what it is because God made it that way,” and so when you observe things about the natural world, when you observe the cycles of growth or the cycles of the sun and moon, solstices and equinoxes, whatever, if you notice those things, God designed them in that way, and so that must tell you something. There should be some symbolic significance that you can discern from that, and so for instance, thinking about why the equinoxes and solstices are fundamental to the date of Easter or the date of Christmas is because as medieval Christians saw it, you should be able to make a connection. God made the sun and moon and he made them have these particular cycles, and so there must be some kind of meaning which derives from them. So it’s a reverse of how we might think about it rather than attributing meaning to these things. They think, they feel, they’re drawing meaning that’s already there.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And of course, that reflects the vision of Genesis, that the sun and the moon and the stars are made, I think the quote is, “For times and seasons, and days and years.” So one of the reasons that the stars exist is to mark seasons, or one of the reasons that stars exist is to tell stories, and one of the reasons that the sun and moon exist is to mark seasons. It’s an inversion of the normal understanding of what it means to be a symbol almost.

    Eleanor Parker: Yeah.

    Section IV: After Easter

    Peter Mommsen: So in the Anglo-Saxon year, we’ve gotten through Rogationtide and Ascension Day. How do things go on from there? What would Pentecost look like?

    Eleanor Parker: So Pentecost – Whitsun is the old English name for that. It would very much be a kind of summer festival because you’re getting very close to the height of summer there, and essentially people celebrated it by doing whatever they felt like doing that felt nice in June. I think some of the things they would do would have religious components, so it was especially a time for baptisms, also a special time for things like coronations and the ordination of bishops, and so ceremonies of conferring the Holy Spirit or consecration or something like that. We’re going to have a coronation in Britain this year, but I’m really disappointed they didn’t pick a Pentecost date. It’s close, but it’s not Pentecost, unfortunately. So some of the things they do at Whitsun would have that religious component, but actually also it seems to have just been a time when people would enjoy themselves.

    Peter Mommsen: I mean, just from the weather point of view, it’s also a great time to get a big crowd together outside and then . . .

    Eleanor Parker: exactly.

    Peter Mommsen: celebrate.

    Eleanor Parker: Yeah, which you can’t always do in Britain, you have to pick your time of year.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. Well, hopefully Charles will nevertheless get an extra dose of the Holy Spirit because I think he might need it.

    It seems to me that a lot of your work has been this attempt to point people back towards the resources within the English tradition, the Anglo-Saxon tradition, and away from the nineteenth-century paganized version or the fanciful version of what they’re trying to get from that. Is that something that rings true to you? Is that something that you have done consciously, or what draws you about all these things?

    Eleanor Parker: I think what I mostly want to do is just to help people get back to reading as close to the original sources or material as they can because so often . . . I started off by reading a bit of The Dream of the Rood. The language of that is really difficult. That’s not something you’re going to be able to understand just listening to it. And so for a lot of people, many of the world feels very distant and they encounter it as secondhand, and that secondhand might be through the work of excellent historians, or it might be through rather distorted later nineteenth or twentieth-century ideas or myths, or even the myths that go around the internet about the pagan Easter or whatever, which can be a distortion of what the original material can show us.

    So I think what I always want to do is just to help people get closer to what is actually there, and then I don’t want to tell people what to think about it. They can read it and they can feel like, I don’t know, “This is really pagan,” or whatever, and that’s completely fine. I’m not trying to present this material in any particular way. I’m just trying to help people approach it to understand aspects of it that might seem unfamiliar or difficult to understand, and try and help bridge that gap that exists between us and this world of many, many centuries ago in a very different mindset.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, for our listeners, we strongly urge you to dive into this more nature-attuned understanding, and you can do that through checking out Eleanor’s book. It’s called Winters in the World: A Journey Through the Anglo-Saxon Year. It came out last year, and it’s just beautiful. So to conclude, Eleanor, I know that you probably have many favorite moments in the Anglo-Saxon year. So right now as we’re looking at spring and summer coming our way, what’s especially a memorable one that you could leave us with?

    Eleanor Parker: Yeah. I think my answer would probably change depending on what time of the year you asked me. I think at the moment I would actually say Rogationtide because I really like the sense that you get from Rogationtide of the community coming together to observe this moment in the year. This sense that it’s about, say a particular church community or a particular town recognizing the space that’s around them, noticing their particular little bit of nature, their fields, their rivers, their hills, whatever. Blessing them, trying to bring God’s blessing to them and doing that together, very much as a unified community. I think that’s an aspect of the medieval church here that really appeals to me. I think it’s just lovely.

    Peter Mommsen: OK, so put that on your calendar, everyone. The days before Ascension day go out and at least notice, and hopefully bless the beautiful bits of nature right around you. Thank you so much for joining us, Eleanor. It is always a joy to talk with you and it won’t be the last time.

    Eleanor Parker: Thank you.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    Peter Mommsen: On our next episode, we’ll be speaking with L. M. Sacasas about the AI menace, and why we cannot be replaced by computers.

    Contributed By EleanorParker Eleanor Parker

    Eleanor Parker teaches medieval literature at Brasenose College, Oxford.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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