Listen! I wish to tell of the most wonderful vision
Which came to me as a midnight dream
As all the speech-bearers lay asleep.
The opening of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood demands our attention for a story which will overflow the confines of the night vision to radically change the poet, the listeners to his tale, and everyone who was asleep whilst a talking cross appeared to him. Those people are designated by an odd term, “reordberend” in the original, which translates literally as “speech-bearers”. It means something like “humanity”, “all people” or “everyone”, but ever since I was first fascinated by this poem as a student, I’ve thought it a slightly peculiar term.
It appears to make speech the defining characteristic of humanity; not just something that marks it out from other groups, and by which we could recognize humans in the field, but an intrinsic part of what it is to be human. Aristotle highlights this distinction when he says that man is a “rational animal”, and though the phrase “laughing biped” might allow identification as well, it does not get to the essence in the same way. Though speech is not something that would mark out humans exclusively in Anglo-Saxon literature, since lots of other things speak, from stone angels, to onions, to the cross of Christ in this very poem. So the term doesn’t seem to work on a practical level.
We might reframe it by considering the position it occupies in the poem, and the conditions of poetic production and performance in this period. It is part of the opening few lines, preceded by the characteristic exclamation “Hwaet!”, which has variously been translated as “Hark!” “Listen!” “O!”, or in more modern terms “Hear me now”. Seamus Heaney translated it (as it appears at the beginning of Beowulf” with the apparently low-key word “So”, but explained in his notes that it evoked his older male relatives from Ulster, who would utter that syllable to clear any previous talk from the air.
The opening lines make space for the vision to be told, claiming attention and inviting the listener to participate in the poetic event. In the probable context of an Anglo-Saxon performance, this is the moment when the scop (or bard) would gain the attention of those eating and drinking in the hall. There’s perhaps a touch of Right, This Is A Story Which Happened When Everyone Was Being Very Quiet Actually, Can We Imagine What That Would Be Like, Let’s Play Sleeping Thegns Shall We, The Magic Only Works If You Shut Up To A Certain Extent…
This is also part of the poem’s narrative. The vision came at a time of silence and stillness, into which broke a revelation from an unexpected source. This echoes the “still, small voice” in which God speaks in 1 Kings 19:12, and more generally the devotional practices of silence which have been part of the Christian tradition since its early years. The poem Daniel uses a similar phrase when talking about Nebuchadnezzar’s dream:
He ordered then his people to gather,
those who bore the most learning in magical skill,
and asked the assembly what he had dreamed,
while speech-bearers occupied their sleep.
This parallel points up something which we might have missed earlier: that the speech-bearers in question weren’t speaking at the time. In neither of these lines are the speech-bearers the ones who do the talking, making the epithet seem even more incongruous. Not to mention the fact that all of them (aside from Daniel) are silenced by the king’s question. His demand that the wizards and seers not only interpret his dream, but tell him what he dreamed to start with, renders them unable to speak. The other time the word appears in The Dream of the Rood, there is a similar lack of chat from the reordberend, though they’re not specifically mentioned as silent or sleeping, as the cross declares:
Once I became hardest of torments,
most loathly to men, before I for them,
voice-bearers, life’s right way opened
This is not a poem which undervalues speech, it should be pointed out. The cross’ address to the poet changes his entire idea of himself and his life, and causes him to join the ongoing declaration of redemption, which the poem then itself enacts by telling the story (as part of an oral poetic culture). Speech is vital in this poem, bound up as it is with the notion of kerygma or proclamation of the Gospel. But it is not the speech-bearers who are shown participating in this ongoing and saving practice of speech.
Another instance of the word can be found in Elene, the poem about St. Helena, in the apocalyptic passage which describes the Last Judgement:
So this whole world will disappear
and the hungry flame will also seize those that were born here
when the Lord himself seeks out judgment with an army of angels.
Every one of the voice-bearers must hear correctly there
about all of their deeds through the mouth of the Deemer,
and they must be held to account for all of their unwise words
spoken of old, their shameless thoughts.
Once again the reordberend are not the ones speaking. Indeed they are required to listen, and be judged on their failures of speech in the past. It occurs in an equally doom-laden context in the third of the Christ poems:
The most terrifying of days shall come into the world,
when the Glory-King in his majesty chastises
every nation, commanding the speech-bearing to arise
from their earth-graves, and every single person,
each one of mankind to muster at the moot.
The “speech-bearing” seems positively ironic in this example, where humans are not only responding to a command from someone else, but being summoned to a “moot” where there will be no mooting for them. In the examples so far, humans are identified as speech-bearers precisely at the moments when their speech is absent, impossible or failed. They are asleep, or listening, or unable to answer a question, or silent before judgement. Does this mean that “reordberend” is simply an ironic poetic term, designed to highlight characters’ inability to carry out a central part of their human nature? That it means “those who ought to bear speech” or “those who would usually be speaking”?
This is a possible reading, and one which gets at the sense of speech’s absence in these passages, at least coming from the speech-bearers. I think it’s worth considering the term further, though. After all, “speech-bearer” does not literally mean “speaker”. I’ve been discussing it as if it meant “humanity insofar as humanity is defined by its articulate capacities”. But bearing speech is not necessarily the same thing as carrying out speech. And, as I mentioned above, humans are not the only speakers in the Anglo-Saxon universe.
God speaks. Angels and onions and others also speak, of course. But God is the source of speech in the Christian tradition which informs and shapes Anglo-Saxon poetry. More than that, God’s speech is the source of everything else. “And God said…” is the repeated phrase in the first chapter of Genesis, as the creation of the world is recounted, as the visible reality around us is spoken into being. It’s a theme which the Gospel of John picks up on, beginning its account with Jesus as “the Word” which was with God, and which was God, the Word through which all things were made.
Humans were also spoken into being, and perhaps it is that fact which calling them reordberend hints at. They “bear” speech in the way that Cain “bore” the mark, as a symbol of their past and their nature. But they also “bear” it as an ability, as the potential to carry out the practice of speaking. Spoken into being as articulate creatures, the reordberend bear speech as part of the imago Dei or b’tzelem Elohim, the image of God in which they were created. It can be misused or corrupted, but the act of speaking hold the possibility of participating in God’s activity in the world. Speech in this sense might be regarded as an echo of, and a response to, God’s act of creation. It might particularly be regarded thus in a complex oral poetic tradition.
Speech is literally a response to God, and a fulfilling of God-given capacities, in the poem Andreas. God, disguised as a sailor, demands of the saint:
If you are a follower of the one dwelling in majesty, the King of Glory, as you say, narrate then the secrets of how he taught the speech-bearers under the sky.
Again, the speech-bearers are in fact not speaking, they are listening. But they are receiving both teaching and narrative, which enable St Andrew to reply to God in both a literal and metaphorical sense. He can relate “the secrets of how [God] taught the speech-bearers” to the stranger who is questioning him, and in doing so fulfil his abilities as reordberend, as well as participating in the ongoing speech which originated with God.
This adds deeper implications to the last two examples of “reordberend” in the corpus, which both occur in the Christ poems. Mary is addressed as:
O you are the most famous of middle-earth,
the cleanest queen across the earth—
of those who have been to the ends of life—
how rightfully all speech-bearing men
all over the world, call you and say,
with a blithe mind, that you should be
the bride of the best Dispenser of the Skies.
The speech-bearers are addressing the Word-bearer here. Though there is no technical theological term “Logotokos” (“Word-bearer”) to parallel the Orthodox use of “Theotokos” (“God-bearer”) as a title for Mary, at least one English hymn calls her “Thou bearer of th’Eternal Word”. For once we actually see speech-bearers employing speech, but they are doing so in a dialectic with heaven, acclaiming the “queen” through whom the Word came into the world. This comes into even clearer focus when the same poem addresses the Trinity:
Hail the divine and dignified,
high and holy, heaven-kindly Trinity,
blessed across the broad and abundant plains,
who the speech-bearers, the dejected earth-dwellers
must by rights praise highly with all their means,
now that the pledge-fast God has revealed to us t
he Saviour so that we are able to understand him.
The praise rendered to the Trinity by the reordberend is a response to (and made possible by) the revelation which they have received. They use their speech not to impart information to the Trinity (for obvious reasons), but to be drawn into the activity which has marked God’s action towards them. “Reordberend” is a word rich in theological implications, by turns practical, ironic and paradoxical, calling attention to the poetic speech in which it appears whilst pointing away from itself towards the source of that speech in God.