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Rood was originally the only Old English word for the instrument of Jesus Christ's death. The words crúc and in the North cros (from either Old Irish or Old Norse) appeared by late Old English; "crucifix" is first recorded in English in the Ancrene Wisse of about 1225. More precisely, the Rood was the True Cross, the specific wooden cross used in Christ's crucifixion. The word remains in use in some names, such as Holyrood Palace and the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood. The phrase "by the rood" was used in swearing, e.g. "No, by the rood, not so" in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act 3, Scene 4).
In church architecture the rood, or rood cross, is a roughly life-size crucifix with figure, displayed on the central axis of a church, normally at the chancel arch. The earliest roods hung from the top of the chancel arch, or rested on a plain "rood beam" across it, usually at the level of the capitals of the columns. This original arrangement is still found in many churches in Germany and Scandinavia, although many other surviving crosses now hang on walls. Numerous near life-size crucifixes survive from the Romanesque period or earlier, with the Gero Cross in Cologne Cathedral (AD 965–970) and the Volto Santo of Lucca the best known. The prototype may have been one known to have been set up in Charlemagne's Palatine Chapel in Aachen, apparently in gold foil worked over a wooden core in the manner of the Golden Madonna of Essen, though figureless jeweled gold crosses are recorded in similar positions in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the 5th century. Many figures in precious metal are recorded in Anglo-Saxon monastic records, though none now survive. Notables sometimes gave their crowns (Cnut the Great at Winchester Cathedral), necklaces (Lady Godiva to the Virgin accompanying the rood at Evesham Abbey), or swords (Tovi the Proud, Waltham Abbey) to decorate them. The original location and support for the surviving figures is often not clear but a number of northern European churches preserve the original setting in full – they are known as a "Triumphkreuz" in German, from the "triumphal arch" (chancel arch in later terms) of Early Christian architecture. As in later examples the Virgin and Saint John often flank the cross, and cherubim and other figures are sometimes seen. A gilt rood in the 10th century Mainz Cathedral was only placed on a beam on special feast days.
Rood screens developed in the 13th century, as a wooden or stone screens, also usually separating the chancel or choir from the nave, upon which the rood now stood. The screen may be elaborately carved and was often richly painted and gilded. Rood screens were found in Christian churches in most parts of Europe by the end of the Middle Ages, though in Catholic countries the great majority were gradually removed after the Council of Trent, and most were removed or drastically cut down in areas controlled by Calvinists and Anglicans. The best medieval examples are now mostly in the Lutheran countries such as Germany and Scandinavia, where they were often left undisturbed in country churches.
Rood screens are the Western equivalent of the Byzantine templon beam, which developed into the Eastern Orthodox iconostasis. Some rood screens incorporate a rood loft, a narrow gallery or just flat walkway which could be used to clean or decorate the rood or cover it up in Lent, or in larger examples by singers or musicians. An alternative type of screen is the Pulpitum, as seen in Exeter Cathedral, which is near the main altar of the church.
The rood itself provided a focus for worship, most especially in Holy Week, when worship was highly elaborate. During Lent the rood was veiled; on Palm Sunday it was revealed before the procession of palms and the congregation knelt before it. The whole Passion story would then be read from the rood loft, at the foot of the crucifix, by three ministers.
No original medieval rood now survives in a church in the United Kingdom. Most were deliberately destroyed as acts of iconoclasm during the English Reformation and the English Civil War, when many rood screens were also removed. Today, in many British churches, the "rood stair" that gave access to the gallery is often the only remaining sign of the former rood screen and rood loft.
In the nineteenth century, under the influence of the Oxford Movement, roods and screens were again added to many Anglican churches.
A unique rood exists at St Mary's parish church, Charlton-on-Otmoor, near Oxford, England, where a large wooden cross, solidly covered in greenery, and known as the Garland, stands on the early 16th-century rood screen (said by Sherwood and Pevsner to be the finest in Oxfordshire). The cross is redecorated twice a year, on 1 May and 19 September (the patronal festival, calculated according to the Julian Calendar), when children from the local primary school, carrying small crosses decorated with flowers, bring a long, flower-decorated, rope-like garland. The cross is dressed or redecorated with locally obtained box foliage. The rope-like garland is hung across the rood screen during the "May Garland Service".
An engraving from 1823 shows the dressed rood cross as a more open, foliage-covered framework, similar to certain types of corn dolly, with a smaller attendant figure of similar appearance. Folklorists have commented on the garland crosses' resemblance to human figures, and noted that they replaced statues of St Mary and Saint James the Great which had stood on the rood screen until they were destroyed during the Reformation. Until the 1850s, the larger garland cross was carried in a May Day procession, accompanied by morris dancers, to the former Benedictine Studley priory (as the statue of St Mary had been, until the Reformation). Meanwhile the women of the village used to carry the smaller garland cross through Charlton, though it seems that this ceased some time between 1823 and 1840, when an illustration in J.H. Parker's A Glossary of Terms Used in Grecian, Roman, Italian, and Gothic Architecture shows only one garland cross, centrally positioned on the rood screen.
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