David Michael Black
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Date of Graduation
Master of Arts (MA)
Department of History
Michael J. Galgano
Long before Christian missionaries arrived in England in the 7th century, the pagan population recognized the cross as a potent magical symbol. As a result, proselytizers shrewdly used the population’s familiarity with the cross, and their understandings of its power, to encourage converts to the new religion. Over the ensuing centuries of English Christian dominance, the magical aspects of the cross continued to develop both mythologically and theologically, without ever losing connection to their pagan origins. The Crusades, both through the propaganda of preachers and the massive influx of True Cross Relics, contributed in a substantial way to new beliefs about the cross and its role in Christian practice through a renewed emphasis on pilgrimage. The power and centrality of the cross in Christianity was not questioned in any substantial way until the late 14th century when the Lollards, following the work of John Wycliffe, began objecting to crosses. The Lollards argued that the time and money that the church poured into pilgrimages and the production and maintenance of extravagantly decorated crosses and reliquaries distracted from the true purpose of Christianity, which was social benevolence. The Church had long regarded images as books for the illiterate, but the Lollards felt that an educated congregation with vernacular books could dispense with crosses. Though the Lollards were persecuted as heretics, their ideas not only survived, but gained prominence during the Henrician and Edwardian Reformations. At the outset of the Reformation, Henry VIII had no desire to purge crosses or associated rituals from the Church. After his death, however, his son and heir, Edward VI, did. With the backing of influential religious figures such as Thomas Cranmer and Hugh Latimer, Edward encouraged iconoclasm throughout England and instituted a number of doctrinal changes to the new Anglican faith. As zealous reformers eliminated Catholic and pagan elements from Christian worship, the monarchy adapted the cross to become a symbol of the king and crown. Consequently, the cross continued to survive in England, but had new connotations: less magical and more suited for the increasingly modern and secular world of post-Reformation England.
Black, David, "“‘bere we þe cros’: The Persistence of the Cross in English Ritual and Religious Practices from Bede to the Reformation”" (2018). Masters Theses, 2010-2019. 564.