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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Note to stanza

7. Anonymous Poems, Líknarbraut, 35 [Vol. 7, 268-70]

[All]: The Cross as way is inherent in the poem’s title Líknarbraut ‘way of grace’ (see Note to 51/4). Here that way is a bridge (brú, l. 1), apparently difficult to traverse, leading to heaven. This image is in the tradition of various obstacle bridges crossing a water barrier to the Otherworld (see Patch 1950, passim; for ON, see Boberg 1966, nos F152 and A657.1). The motif received its classical formulation in Gregory’s Dialogues (Gregorius I, Dialogorum IV, chs 37-38, cols 384-8; ON translation in Hms I, 249-51, differently numbered and, because of a gap in fragments, missing Gregory’s explication). A soldier who dies of the plague but shortly comes back to life tells how he saw a bridge over a black river, on the other side of which were lovely meadows and gleaming mansions. The bridge is such that if a wicked man attempts to cross it he falls into the river, but the righteous are able to cross safely. Questioned by his interlocutor, Gregory explains that the bridge teaches us that angusta valde est semita quae ducit ad vitam ‘very narrow is the way that leads to life’ (cf. Matt. VII.14), and that the black river represents the vice and corruption of the world. This text is important background for this st., not only because it was known in Iceland, but because Gregory uses Matt. VII.14 to explicate the bridge. It is this passage in turn that underlies the frequent medieval representations of the Cross as way, e.g. Hildebert of Lavardin’s Liber de sacra eucharista crux ... via vitae ‘the Cross is the way of life’ (Hildebertus Cenomanensis [C12th], col. 1205) and, from hymns, AH 9, 27 Crux est coelorum via ‘The Cross is the way of/to heaven’. In subsequent formulations the narrowness or difficulty of the bridge is emphasised; it is often sharp-edged or spiked. In Duggals leiðsla (C13th trans. of C12th Visio Tnugdali), e.g., such a bridge is described as only a hand’s breadth and studded with sharp steel spikes (Hms I, 339; Cahill 1983, 40); for further medieval examples, including sword bridges, see Patch 1950, 73, 98, 123, 284 and 303-5. While the bridge of this st. is clearly in this tradition, specific references to the Cross itself as bridge are rare; unlike most of the poem’s other figures of the Cross, this image is not a recurrent motif in hymns and exegetical literature. The wood of the Cross does appear as a footbridge in legends of the cross-tree before the Crucifixion; beginning in the C12th, these occur in various versions with varying details (see Meyer 1882). The popular Legenda aurea version (C13th) recounts that when workmen were unable to fit the cross-tree’s wood into any part of Solomon’s temple, they cast it across a pond for use as a footbridge (pons). When later the Queen of Sheba, visiting Solomon, was about to cross the bridge, she saw in spirit (uidit in spiritu) that the Saviour of the world was destined to hang from the beam, and she immediately knelt in veneration (Meyer 1882, 124). In the later Icel. version, she has goose feet, which are transformed into those of a human as she removes her shoes in reverence before crossing the bridge (Overgaard 1968, 41). In some versions, a small bridge of the same wood (a tre þat the cros was made offe) is laid across the brook Cedron (e.g., in C14th Mandeville’s Travels, see Hamelius 1919-23, I, 62; cf. Meyer 1882, 163); in others the beam is made into a footbridge for people going to the temple, symbolising, as Meyer 1882, 161 notes, that the Cross of Christ is the bridge to heaven (die Brücke zum Himmel). The idea of a bridge to suggest mediation is also used of Mary in the late medieval poem Máría heyr mig háleitt víf 4/5, where she is called hjálpar brú ‘bridge of salvation’ (ÍM II, 258).


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