The Harrowing of Hell (BL Harley 2838 f. 33v)
The following extract from the fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman imagines the events following the Crucifixion, as Christ descends into hell to rescue those who had been imprisoned there before his Incarnation. It's a vivid, dramatic envisioning of the scene: the sudden appearance of light in all-enveloping darkness, rumours of a great event, the devils in hell scurrying around in fear and confusion, a loud voice crying out of the blinding brightness, and then a sudden rush of loving embrace as the souls in hell are caught up by Christ. The whole passage brings to life a brief moment from earlier in the poem, which encapsulates these ideas in just six lines:
The sun for sorrow [at the Crucifixion] lost sight for a time
About midday, when most light is, and meal-time of saints -
Feddest Thou with Thy fresh blood our forefathers in darkness:
Populus qui ambulabat in tenebris vidit lucem magnum.
And the light that leapt out of Thee, Lucifer it blent, [blinded]
And blew all Thy blessed into the bliss of Paradise.
Light is imagined as a physical force, capable of bursting open the gates of hell by the sheer power of love.
But (characteristically for this poem) we begin the scene with a debate, inspired by Psalm 85: "Mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other". These four principles appear before the dreamer's eyes as four women, who argue about whether Christ's death is really enough to pay the price of Adam's sin - whether mercy and love can really triumph over justice and law.
I drow me in that derknesse to descendit ad inferna,
And there I saugh soothly, secundum scripturas,
Out of the west coste, a wenche, as me thoughte,
Cam walkynge in the wey; to helleward she loked.
Mercy highte that mayde, a meke thyng with alle,
A ful benigne burde, and buxom of speche.
Hir suster, as it semed, cam softely walkynge
Evene out of the est, and westward she lokede,
A ful comely creature and a clene, Truthe she highte;
For the vertue that hire folwede, afered was she nevere.
Whan thise maydenes mette, Mercy and Truthe,
Either asked oother of this grete wonder,
Of the dyn and of the derknesse, and how the day rowed,
And which a light and a leme lay bifore helle.
"Ich have ferly of this fare, in feith," seide Truthe,
"And am wendynge to wite what this wonder meneth."
"Have no merveille', quod Mercy, "murhte it bitokneth.
A maiden that highte Marie, and moder withouten felyng
Of any kynde creature, conceyved thorugh speche
And grace of the Holy Goost; weex greet with childe;
Withouten wem into this world she broghte hym;
And that my tale be trewe, I take God to witnesse.
Sith this barn was ybore ben thritti wynter passed,
Which deide and deeth tholed this day aboute mydday,
And that is cause of this clips that closeth now the sonne,
In menynge that man shal fro merknesse be drawe
The while this light and this leme shal Lucifer ablende.
For patriarkes and prophetes han preched herof often
That man shal man save thorugh a maydenes helpe,
And that was tynt thorugh tree, tree shal it wynne,
And that Deeth down broughte, deeth shal releve."
"That thow tellest; quod Truthe, "is but a tale of waltrot!
For Adam and Eve and Abraham with othere
Patriarkes and prophetes that in peyne liggen,
Leve thow nevere that yon light hem alofte brynge,
Ne have hem out of helle - hold thi tonge, Mercy!
It is but trufle that thow tellest - I, Truthe, woot the sothe.
For that is ones in helle, out cometh it nevere;
Job the prophete patriark repreveth thi sawes:
Quia in inferno nulla est redempcio."
Thanne Mercy ful myldely mouthed thise wordes:
"Thorugh experience," quod heo, "I hope thei shul be saved.
For venym fordooth venym - and that I preve by reson.
For of alle venymes foulest is the scorpion;
May no medicyne amende the place ther he styngeth,
Til he be deed and do therto--the yvel he destruyeth,
The firste venymouste, thorugh vertu of hymselve.
So shal this deeth fordo--I dar my lif legge--
Al that deeth dide first thorugh the develes entisyng;
And right as thorugh gilours gile bigiled was man,
So shal grace that al bigan make a good ende
And bigile the gilour - and that is good sleighte:
Ars ut artem falleret."
"Now suffre we!' seide Truthe, " I se, as me thynketh,
Out of the nyppe of the north, noght ful fer hennes,
Rightwisnesse come rennynge; reste we the while,
For heo woot moore than we - heo was er we bothe."
"That is sooth,' seide Mercy, "and I se here by sowthe
Where cometh Pees pleyinge, in pacience yclothed.
Love hath coveited hire longe--leve I noon oother
But Love sente hire som lettre, what this light bymeneth
That overhoveth helle thus; she us shal telle."
Whan Pees in pacience yclothed approched ner hem tweyne,
Rightwisnesse hire reverenced for hir riche clothyng,
And preide Pees to telle hire to whit place she wolde
And in hire gaye garnements whom she grete thoughte?
"My wil is to wende," quod she, "and welcome hem alle
That many day myghte I noght se for merknesse of synne,
Adam and Eve and othere mo in helle,
Moyses and many mo; Mercy shul synge,
And I shal daunce therto--do thow so, suster!
For Jesus justede wel, joye bigynneth dawe:
Ad vesperum demorabitur fletus, et ad matutinum leticia.
Love, that is my lemman, swiche lettres me sente
That Mercy, my suster, and I mankynde sholde save,
And that God hath forgyven and graunted me, Pees, and Mercy
To be mannes meynpernour for everemoore after.
Lo, here the patente!" quod Pees, "In pace in idipsum,
And that this dede shal dure, dormiam et requiescam."
"What, ravestow?" quod Rightwisnesse, "or thow art righty dronke?
Levestow that yond light unlouke myghte helle
And save mannes soule? Suster, wene it nevere!
At the bigynnyng God gaf the doom hymselve -
That Adam and Eve and alle that hem suwede
Sholden deye downrighte, and dwelle in peyne after
If that thei touchede a tree and of the fruyt eten.
Adam afterward, ayeins his defence,
Freet of that fruyt, and forsook, as it were,
The love of Oure Lord and his loore bothe
And folwede that the fend taughte and his felawes wille
Ayeins reson - I, Rightwisnesse, recorde thus with Truthe
That hir peyne be perpetuel and no preiere hem helpe.
Forthi lat hem chewe as thei chosen, and chide we noght, sustres,
For it is botelees bale, the byte that thei eten."
I withdrew into that darkness to descend into the depths, and there I saw truly, as scripture says, a girl - as it seemed to me - out of the west came walking in the way; she looked towards hell. That maid was named Mercy, a meek creature indeed, a very courteous lady, and gentle in speech. Her sister, as it seemed, came softly walking straight out of the east, and looked towards the west; she was a chaste and comely creature, and her name was Truth. Each asked the other about this great marvel, about the din and the darkness, and how the day dawned, and what was the light and gleam which lay before hell.
"I am amazed by this event, in faith," said Truth, "and have come to find out what that wonder means."
"Marvel not," said Mercy, "it means joy! A maiden called Mary, a mother untouched by any creature of nature, conceived through the words and grace of the Holy Ghost, and grew great with child; without stain she brought him into this world. And my tale is true, I take God as my witness, that thirty years have passed since the birth of this child, who died and suffered death this day, about midday - and that is the cause of the eclipse which now conceals the sun, as a sign that mankind shall be drawn out of darkness when this light and this gleaming turns Lucifer blind. Man shall save man with the help of a maiden, and that which was lost through a tree shall be won back through a tree, and that which death brought down, death shall restore."
"What you're saying," said Truth, "is nothing but rubbish! Adam and Eve and Abraham and the others, patriarchs and prophets lying in torment - you shouldn't believe that light can carry them aloft, or take them out of hell! Hold your tongue, Mercy! It's just nonsense you're talking; I, Truth, know what's true. Someone who is once in hell can never leave it again. Job the prophet patriarch proves your words wrong: 'For in hell there is no salvation'."
Then Mercy, very mildly, murmured these words: "From experience," she said, "I hope they shall be saved: for poison destroys poison, and that I can prove by reason. Of all venoms the worst is that of the scorpion, and no medicine can heal the place it has stung - until it is dead and placed on the wound. It destroys the injury, the first poisoning, by being the antidote itself. So this death - I lay my life upon it - shall destroy all that death destroyed first through the devil's tempting; and just as man was betrayed by a deceiver's guile, so the grace which all began shall make a good end, and beguile the guiler - and that's a good stratagem: 'Art by art betrayed'."
"Now let us be quiet," said Truth, "I see, as it seems to me, out of the nip of the north, not very far from here, Righteousness come running. Let us wait for her, for she knows more than we; she existed before either of us."
"That's true," said Mercy, "and I see here, indeed, where Peace comes playing, clothed in patience. Love has long desired her; I believe Love must have sent her some letter to explain what is the meaning of this light which hovers over hell. She will tell us."
When Peace, clothed in patience, came near the two of them, Righteousness greeted her courteously because of her splendid clothing. She asked Peace to tell her where she was going, and whom she was going to meet in such gay garments.
"My intention," she said, "is to go and welcome all those whom for many days I have not been able to see because of the darkness of sin - Adam and Eve, and many others in hell, Moses, and many more! Mercy shall sing, and I shall dance to her singing - do so, sister! For Jesus jousted well; joy begins to dawn. 'Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.' Love, my lover, sent me letters to say that my sister Mercy and I shall save mankind, and that God has freely given and granted to me, Peace, and Mercy to be mankind's surety for evermore. Look, here is proof," said Peace, "that this document will always be valid: 'In peace I will sleep and take my rest."
"Are you insane?" said Righteousness, "or are you actually drunk? Do you believe that light can unlock hell and save the souls of mankind? Sister, don't believe it! In the beginning God gave the judgement himself: that Adam and Eve and all who followed them would die straight out and dwell in torment ever after, if they touched a certain tree and ate of the fruit. Adam, after that, against the prohibition, ate of that fruit, and so turned away from the love of God and his law both, and followed what the devil taught and his companion's wishes, against reason. I, Righteousness, declare with Truth that their pain is perpetual and no prayer can help them. So let them chew what they bit off, and let's not argue, sisters - for the mouthful they are eating is suffering without relief."
They continue to argue, Truth and Righteousness asserting that it would be a violation of God's own justice for mankind to be saved from hell. But then another voice appears, speaking out of the light before the gates of hell:
"Suffre we!" seide Truthe, "I here and see bothe
A spirit speketh to helle and biddeth unspere the yates:
A vois loude in that light to Lucifer crieth,
"Prynces of this place, unpynneth and unlouketh!
For here cometh with crowne that kyng is of glorie."
Thanne sikede Sathan, and seide to helle,
"Swich a light, ayeins oure leve, Lazar it fette;
Care and combraunce is comen to us alle!
If this kyng come in, mankynde wole he fecche,
And lede it ther Lazar is, and lightliche me bynde.
Patriarkes and prophetes han parled herof longe -
That swich a lord and a light shal lede hem alle hennes."
"Listneth!" quod Lucifer, "for I this lord knowe;
Bothe this lord and this light, is longe ago I knew hym.
May no deeth this lord dere, ne no develes queyntise,
And where he wole, is his wey - ac ware hym of the perils!
If he reve me of my right, he robbeth me by maistrie;
For by right and by reson the renkes that ben here
Body and soule beth myne, bothe goode and ille..."
"Quiet!" said Truth, "I can hear and see a spirit speaking to hell, bidding them unbar the gates. A loud voice in the light cries out to Lucifer, 'Princes of this place, unbar and unlock! For here comes crowned he who is king of glory.'"
Then sighed Satan, and said to those in hell, "Such a light as this fetched Lazarus, against our will; care and trouble has come to us all! If this king comes in, he will fetch mankind and take it where Lazarus is, and easily bind me. Patriarchs and prophets have long been talking of this, saying that such a lord and a light should lead them all out of here."
"Listen," said Lucifer, "I know this lord, both this lord and this light - long ago I knew them. This lord cannot be harmed by death or any devil's trickery; and where he will is his way. But let him beware danger! If he takes what's mine by right, he robs me by sheer force, for by right and by reason the people here belong to me, body and soul, both good and wicked."
The devils panic and argue about whether Christ has any right to take their captives out of hell, since they admit that they won the souls of mankind by trickery. Adam and Eve and their descendants were condemned to hell by God himself; can he break his own law? But as they argue, the light is still at the gates:
Eft the light bad unlouke, and Lucifer answerde,
"Quis est iste?
What lord artow?" quod Lucifer. The light soone seide,
The lord of myght and of mayn and alle manere vertues -
Dukes of this dymme place, anoon undo thise yates,
That Crist may come in, the Kynges sone of Hevene!"
And with that breeth helle brak, with Belialles barres -
For any wye or warde, wide open the yates.
Patriarkes and prophetes, populus in tenebris,
Songen Seint Johanes song, "Ecce Agnus Dei."
Lucifer loke ne myghte, so light hym ablente.
And tho that Oure Lord lovede, into his light he laughte,
And seide to Sathan, "Lo! here my soule to amendes
For alle synfulle soules, to save tho that ben worthi.
Myne thei ben and of me - I may the bet hem cleyme.
Although reson recorde, and right of myselve,
That if thei ete the appul, alle sholde deye,
I bihighte hem noght here helle for evere.
For the dede that thei dide, thi deceite it made;
With gile thow hem gete, ageyn alle reson.
For in my paleis, Paradis, in persone of an addre,
Falsliche thow fettest there thyng that I lovede...
Now bigynneth thi gile ageyn thee to turne
And my grace to growe ay gretter and widder.
The bitternesse that thow hast browe, now brouke it thiselve
That art doctour of deeth, drynk that thow madest!
For I that am lord of lif, love is my drynke,
And for that drynke today, I deide upon erthe.
I faught so, me thursteth yet, for mannes soule sake;
May no drynke me moiste, ne my thurst stake,
Til the vendage falle in the vale of Josaphat,
That I drynke right ripe must, resureccio mortuorum.
And thanne shal I come as a kyng, crouned, with aungeles,
And have out of helle alle mennes soules.
Fendes and fendekynes bifore me shul stande
And be at my biddyng wheresoevere me liketh.
Ac to be merciable to man thanne, my kynde it asketh,
For we beth bretheren of blood, but noght in baptisme alle.
Ac alle that beth myne hole bretheren, in blood and in baptisme,
Shul noght be dampned to the deeth that is withouten ende...
Thus by lawe,' quod Oure Lord, "lede I wole fro hennes
Tho leodes that I love and leved in my comynge.
And for thi lesynge, Lucifer, that thow leighe til Eve,
Thow shalt abyen it bittre!" - and bond hym with cheynes.
As troth and al the route hidden hem in hernes;
They dorste noght loke on Oure Lord, the lothlieste of hem alle,
But leten hym lede forth what hym liked and lete what hym liste.
Manye hundred of aungeles harpeden and songen,
"Culpat caro, purgat caro, regnat Deus Dei caro.'
Again the light commanded them to unlock, and Lucifer answered, "Who is this? What lord are you?" Swiftly the light replied: "The king of glory; the Lord of might and main and all manner of virtues; the Lord of power. Dukes of this dim place, undo these gates at once, that Christ may come in, the King of heaven's Son!"
And with that breath hell broke open, and Belial's bars; in despite of any guard or watchman, the gates opened wide. Patriarchs and prophets, the people in darkness, sang St John's song: 'Behold the Lamb of God!' Lucifer could not look, he was so blinded by light. And those whom Our Lord loved he caught up into his light, and said to Satan:
"Lo, here is my soul to make amends for all sinful souls, to save those who are worthy. Mine they are, and of me, and so I may the better claim them. Although reason and my own justice said that if they ate the apple all should die, I did not condemn them to hell for ever. For the deed which they did was caused by your deceit; with guile you got them, against all reason, for in my palace Paradise, in the shape of a serpent, you falsely seized from me that which I loved... Now your trick begins to turn against you, and my grace grows ever greater and wider. The bitterness you have brewed, now drink it yourself; you who are doctor of death, drink what you made! For I who am Lord of Life, love is my drink, and for that drink today I died upon earth. I fought so that I am still thirsting for the sake of mankind's souls. No drink can moisten me or slake my thirst until the vintage comes in the vale of Josaphat, when I will drink new wine from ripened grapes at the resurrection of the dead. And then I shall come as a king, crowned, with angels, and take out of hell all men's souls. Fiends and devils shall stand before me, and be at my bidding as best pleases me. But I will be merciful to mankind then, as my nature demands of me, for we are brethren in blood - although not all in baptism - and all who are my whole brethren, in blood and baptism, shall not be condemned to the death which is without end... Thus by law," said Our Lord, "I will lead from hence the people whom I loved and who believed in my coming. And for the lies, Lucifer, which you told to Eve, you shall pay bitterly!" And he bound him with chains.
Astroth and all the devils hid themselves in corners; the least of them did not dare look on Our Lord, but let him lead forth as he liked and leave what he pleased. Many hundreds of angels harped and sang, 'Flesh hath purged what flesh had stained, and God, the flesh of God, hath reigned!'
Peace, Truth, Righteousness and Mercy are all reconciled; they admit that Christ's arguments (I've cut some of his speech but you can read the whole thing here), and even more so his death, have satisfied the demands of justice as well as the law of love:
Thanne pipede Pees of poesie a note:
"Clarior est solito post maxima nebula phebus;
Post inimicicias clarior est et amor.
"After sharpest shoures," quod Pees, "moost shene is the sonne;
Is no weder warmer than after watry cloudes;
Ne no love levere; ne lever frendes
Than after werre and wo, whan love and pees ben maistres.
Was nevere werre in this world, ne wikkednesse so kene,
That Love, and hym liste, to laughyng ne broughte,
And Pees, thorugh pacience, alle perils stoppede."
"Trewes!' quod Truthe; " thow tellest us sooth, by Jesus!
Clippe we in covenaunt, and ech of us kisse oother."
"And lete no peple," quod Pees, "parceyve that we chidde;
For inpossible is no thyng to Hym that is almyghty.'
"Thow seist sooth,' seide Rightwisnesse, and reverentliche hire kiste,
Pees, and Pees hire, per secula seculorum.
Misericordia et Veritas obviaverunt sibi, justicia et Pax osculate sunt.
Truthe trumpede tho and song Te Deum laudamus,
And thanne lutede Love in a loud note,
"Ecce quam bonum et quam iocundum &c.
Til the day dawed thise damyseles carolden,
That men rongen to the resurexion - and right with that I wakede,
And called Kytte my wif and Calote my doghter:
"Ariseth and reverenceth Goddes resurexion,
And crepeth to the cros on knees, and kisseth it for a juwel!
For Goddes blik body it bar for eure body,
And it afereth the fend - for swich is the myghte,
May no grisly goost glide there it shadweth!"
Then Peace piped a note of poetry... "After sharpest showers the sun is brightest, and there is no weather warmer than after watery clouds; love is never dearer, nor friends more precious, than after war and trouble when love and peace reign. There was never war in this world or wickedness so fierce that Love, if he liked, could not turn it to laughter. And Peace, through patience, stopped all perils."
"Truce!" said Truth, "you tell us true, by Jesus! Let us embrace in accord, and kiss each other."
"And let no one," said Peace, "perceive that we argued; for nothing is impossible to Him who is almighty."
"You say the truth," said Righteousness, and reverently kissed Peace, and Peace her, for ever and ever. 'Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed.'
Truth blew a trumpet and sang 'Te Deum laudamus', and then Love sang to the lute in a loud song, 'Behold, how good and pleasant it is [for brethren to dwell in unity].'
Until the day dawned these damsels carolled, until the bells began to ring for the Resurrection - and at that moment I awoke, and called Kit my wife and Calote my daughter. "Arise and go reverence God's resurrection, and creep to the cross on your knees and kiss it as a jewel! For it bore God's blessed body for our redemption, and it frightens the fiend - for such is its power that no grisly ghost may glide where its shadow falls."