Power embodied: pectoral crosses in early England and their pre-Christian background

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University of Delaware
Far removed from the bodies they once adorned, and the graves from which they were unearthed, golden cross pendants, richly inlaid with garnets, sit behind glass in various museums in Great Britain. Like many museum objects, crosses from seventh-century England are disembodied from the people who wore them and from the context of their life as things. Bereft of contextual images from grave sites or excavations, both publications and museums tend to privilege the frontal, visual aspect of these pendants. This dissertation attempts to reconcile the duality between human and material culture and body and mind through a study of personal adornment. The people of fifth- and sixth-century England arrayed their bodies with jewelry that expressed status, heritage, and personal style and provided amuletic protection in life and in the grave. By the end of the seventh century, after the introduction of Christianity at the end of the sixth, jewelry all but disappeared from the cemetery record. Assessment of such changes to personal adornment, burial practices, or grave goods has focused on larger abstract concepts of political, social, or religious transition; less consideration has been given to the body as the primary driver of human action. Cognitive and phenomenological methodologies provide a new perspective in interpreting cultural changes like the transition from a non-Christian to a Christian paradigm. New concepts are internalized within the body, which includes the brain and its environment, rather than by a disembodied mind processing and acting autonomously. Through a case-study of the wearable cross, this dissertation will demonstrate the ability of embodied objects to change entrenched cultural notions about the mind/body relationship. This study begins with the engagement between jewelry and the wearer, including the bodily motivations for adornment, the affective properties of design and materials, and the effects on memory and recall. It then explores anxieties regarding protection from the supernatural in life and in death, as well as societal functions of personal adornment. With the penetration of the image and sign of the cross into seventh-century England, it will posit the translation of concerns for protection from pre-Christian amulets to the Christian cross. Additionally, it will examine the cognitive effects of Christian ritual as well as bodily interaction between cross pendants and their owners. Finally, it will demonstrate the eventual disappearance of the wearable cross from the cemetery record in the eighth century as suggestive of one of the first major shifts in attitudes toward the material world and the body. More than a mere replacement of amulets, the cross represents a sensorial need for contact between power-object and wearer as belief systems overlapped between the sixth and seventh centuries. This bodily relationship provides a richer understanding of the people of early medieval England and the glittering ornaments they carried with them in life and beyond.
Early medieval, Embodiment, Jewelry, Phenomenology, Christianity, Christian paradigm