The Harrowing of Hell (BL Cotton Nero C IV, f. 24)
The Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Day - between Christ's death and his resurrection - is traditionally considered to be the time of the Harrowing of Hell, when Christ descended into the underworld to free all those who were imprisoned there until his rising from the dead. The Harrowing of Hell was a very popular subject in medieval art and literature, and it served as a potent story of liberation: the king of justice storming the prison of evil to set its captives free.
In poetry it is often imagined as a triumphant military expedition, and that explains its English name, since harrowing comes from the Old English word hergian 'to harry, pillage, plunder'. A word commonly used of armies of Vikings and other military threats was transferred at an early date onto Christ's descent into hell - one of those remarkably bold Anglo-Saxon adoptions of secular language into the standard vocabulary of English-speaking Christianity, many of which we still use today without giving much thought to their history. (Look up the etymology of 'blessing' sometime!) The OED's first citation for the word in its Christian sense is from the end of the tenth century, in Ælfric's homily for Easter:
Hell oncneow Crist, ðaða heo forlet hyre hæftlingas ut, þurh ðæs Hælendes hergunge.
Hell acknowledged Christ when it let its captives out, through the Saviour's harrowing.
Last year I posted the dazzlingly brilliant section from Piers Plowman which explores the Harrowing of Hell, and today I want to share some extracts from another English poem, four centuries older, on the same theme. It's an Anglo-Saxon poem known as 'The Descent into Hell', which is preserved in fragmentary form in the tenth-century Exeter Book. It begins with the women going to the tomb, describing their grief and desolation; then the scene shifts to hell, where all the figures of the Old Testament who lived before Christ rejoice at his coming and John the Baptist speaks a long and eloquent prayer to their liberator on behalf of them all.
The text, which is damaged in places, is taken from here, with my translation; a full edition and translation of the poem can be found in M.R. Rambaran-Olm, 'John the Baptist's Prayer' or 'The Descent into Hell' from the Exeter Book (Cambridge, 2014).
Ongunnon him on uhtan æþelcunde mægð
gierwan to geonge; wiston gumena gemot
æþelinges lic eorðærne biþeaht.
Woldan werigu wif wope bimænan
æþelinges deað ane hwile,
reone bereotan. Ræst wæs acolad,
heard wæs hinsið; hæleð wæron modge,
þe hy æt þam beorge bliðe fundon.
Cwom seo murnende Maria on dægred,
heht hy oþre mid eorles dohtor.
Sohton sarigu tu sigebearn godes
ænne in þæt eorðærn þær hi ær wiston
þæt hine gehyddan hæleð Iudea;
wendan þæt he on þam beorge bidan sceolde,
ana in þære easterniht. Huru þæs oþer þing
wiston þa wifmenn, þa hy on weg cyrdon!
Ac þær cwom on uhtan an engla þreat,
behæfde heapa wyn hælendes burg.
Open wæs þæt eorðærn, æþelinges lic
onfeng feores gæst, folde beofode,
hlogan helwaran; hagosteald onwoc
modig from moldan, mægenþrym aras
sigefæst ond snottor.
Before dawn those noble women began
to prepare themselves for the journey. The company of men knew
that the prince's body was enclosed in an earthen tomb.
The sorrowful women wanted for a while
to mourn with weeping the prince's death,
to grieve with lamentation. The place of rest had grown cold,
bitter was the journey of death; but brave was the man
whom they would meet rejoicing at the tomb.
Mary came, mourning, at daybreak,
summoned with her a second daughter of man.
The two of them sought, sorrowful, the victorious Son of God,
alone in the earthen tomb where they knew
the men of the Jews had enclosed him.
They thought that he would have to lie in the grave
alone on that Easter night. But something very different
would those women know, when they returned on their way.
Before dawn there came a throng of angels,
the joy of the host surrounded the Saviour's tomb.
Open was the earthen vault. The prince's body
received the breath of life, the ground shook,
hell-dwellers laughed; the young warrior awoke,
dauntless from the dust, majesty arose,
victorious and wise.
This opening sounds various echoes with other Old English poems. As the women think about Christ lying ænne in þæt eorðærn, 'alone in the earthen tomb', so The Dream of the Rood imagines Christ alone in the tomb as his followers depart: reste he ðær mæte weorode, 'he rested there, with little company'. And the mourning women who go out on uhtan, in the hour before the dawn, could almost be sisters to one of the most memorable voices in the Exeter Book: the woman in The Wife's Lament, who famously says of herself, separated from her lord, that she suffers uhtceare, 'sorrow before dawn'. The word the poem uses for Christ's tomb is eorðærn, an earthen vault, and the woman in The Wife's Lament dwells in an eorðscræfe, an earthen chamber of some kind beneath an oak tree. The mysterious plight of the woman in The Wife's Lament has provoked endless discussion, but if you were an Anglo-Saxon monk reading this manuscript, I wonder whether you would see any parallel between her and seo murnende Maria on dægred 'Mary, mourning at day-break'.
At this point in the poem the scene shifts suddenly, mid-line, to hell, where John the Baptist is speaking of his hope that Christ will come and save them:
hæleð helwarum, hlyhhende spræc
modig to þære mengo ymb his mæges ......:
"Hæfde me gehaten hælend user,
þa he me on þisne sið sendan wolde,
þæt he me gesoht... siex monað,
ealles folces fruma. Nu ...... sceacen.
Wene ic ful swiþe ond witod
...... to dæge dryhten wille
...... gesecan, sigebearn godes."
Fysde hine þa to fore frea moncynnes;
wolde heofona helm helle weallas
forbrecan ond forbygan, þære burge þrym
onginnan reafian, reþust ealra cyninga.
Ne rohte he to þære hilde helmberendra,
ne he byrnwigend to þam burggeatum
lædan ne wolde, ac þa locu feollan,
clustor of þam ceastrum; cyning in oþrad,
ealles folces fruma forð onette,
weoruda wuldorgiefa. Wræccan þrungon,
hwylc hyra þæt sygebearn geseon moste,
Adam ond Abraham, Isac ond Iacob,
monig modig eorl, Moyses ond Dauid,
Esaias ond Sacharias,
heahfædra fela, swylce eac hæleþa gemot,
witgena weorod, wifmonna þreat,
fela fæmnena, folces unrim.
Geseah þa Iohannis sigebearn godes
mid þy cyneþrymme cuman to helle,
ongeat þa geomormod godes sylfes sið.
Geseah he helle duru hædre scinan,
þa þe longe ær bilocen wæron,
beþeahte mid þystre; se þegn wæs on wynne.
The man John
spoke to the inhabitants of hell, rejoicing explained
boldly to the crowd about his kinsman's coming:
'Our Saviour promised me,
when he chose to send me on this journey,
that he would seek me again after six months,
Lord of all people. Now that time is passed;
I full expect and believe
that today the Lord will come in search of us,
the victorious Son of God.'
Then the Lord of mankind hastened to his journey.
The shield of the heavens wanted to destroy and demolish
the walls of hell, to carry off the people of the city,
most righteous of all kings.
In that battle he gave no thought for helmeted warriors
nor would he bring mail-clad soldiers
to the gates of that fortress; but the locks fell apart,
the barriers from the city, and the king rode in.
The Lord of all people pressed onward,
the host's glory-gift. The exiles thronged together
each wanting to see the victorious Son:
Adam and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,
many brave men, Moses and David,
Isaiah and Zachariah,
many patriarchs and a great gathering of heroes,
a host of prophets, a throng of women,
many virgins, countless numbers of people.
Then John saw the victorious Son of God
coming with royal majesty to hell,
the mourning man perceived the journey of God himself.
He saw the doors of hell brightly gleaming
which had long ago been locked,
shrouded in darkness. The thegn was full of joy.
John greets his kinsman, on behalf of himself and all the multitude dwelling in hell:
Abead þa bealdlice burgwarena ord
modig fore þære mengo ond to his mæge spræc
ond þa wilcuman wordum grette:
"þe þæs þonc sie, þeoden user,
þæt þu us... ...ige secan woldest,
nu we on þissum bendum bidan ......
þonne monige bindeð broþorleasne
wræccan ...... (he bið wide fah),
ne bið he no þæs nearwe under niðloc...
þæs bitre gebunden under bealuclommum,
þæt he þy yð ne mæge ellen habban,
þonne he his hlafordes hyldo gelyfeð,
þæt hine of þam bendum bicgan wille.
Swa we ealle to þe an gelyfað,
dryhten min se dyra.
Then the leader of the stronghold's inhabitants boldly called out,
courageous before the crowd, and spoke to his kinsman
and welcomed him with words:
'Thanks be to you, our Lord,
for you chose to seek us out,
now we are languishing in these bonds.
Though the enemy ensnares many brotherless exiles
- he is everywhere hostile -
there is no one so closely kept in cruel fetters
or bitterly bound in painful chains
that he may not easily find courage
if he trusts in his lord's loyalty,
that he will release him from his bonds.
So we all trust in you alone,
my Lord so dear.
The women at the tomb and the harrowing of hell (BL Harley 603, f. 71)
In his speech of exultation, John addresses praises to Gabriel and to Mary:
Eala Gabrihel, hu þu eart gleaw ond scearp,
milde ond gemyndig ond monþwære,
wis on þinum gewitte ond on þinum worde snottor!
þæt þu gecyðdest þa þu þone cnyht to us
brohtest in Bethlem. Bidan we þæs longe,
setan on sorgum, sibbe oflyste,
wynnum ond wenum, hwonne we word godes
þurh his sylfes muð secgan hyrde.
Eala Maria, hu þu us modigne
cyning acendest, þa þu þæt cild to us
brohtest in Bethlem. We þæs beofiende
under helle dorum hearde sceoldon
bidan in bendum.
O Gabriel, how wise and keen you are,
merciful and mindful and mild,
wise in your wits and perceptive in your words!
That you showed when you brought to us
the boy in Bethlehem. Long we had waited,
sitting in sorrow, yearning for peace,
happiness and hope, for when we would hear
God's word speak from his own mouth.
O Mary, you bore for us
a courageous king, when you brought to us
that child in Bethlehem! We, trembling
behind the gates of hell, had to wait
in cruel bonds.
He goes on to describe their mourning in hell, the rejoicing of their captors in the exiles' pain, and he laments for Jerusalem. The poem closes with his appeal to Christ:
Nu ic þe halsie, hælend user,
deope in gedyrstum, þu eart dryhten Crist,
þæt þu us gemiltsie, monna scyppend.
þu fore monna lufan þinre modor bosm
sylfa gesohtes, sigedryhten god,
nales fore þinre þearfe, þeoda waldend,
ac for þam miltsum þe þu moncynne
oft ætywdest, þonne him wæs are þearf.
þu meaht ymbfon eal folca gesetu,
swylce þu meaht geriman, rice dryhten,
sæs sondgrotu, selast ealra cyninga.
Swylce ic þe halsige, hælend user,
fore ...inum cildhade, cyninga selast,
ond fore þære wunde, weoruda dry...
þinum æriste, æþelinga wyn
ond for Iordane in Iudeum,
(wit unc in þære burnan baþodan ætgædre).
Oferwurpe þu mid þy wætre, weoruda dryhten,
bliþe mode ealle burgwaran,
swylce git Iohannis in Iordane
mid þy fullwihte fægre onbryrdon
ealne þisne middangeard. Sie þæs symle meotude þonc!"
Now I, deep in tribulations,
implore our Saviour: you are the Lord Christ,
have mercy upon us, Maker of mankind!
You for the love of mankind sought
your mother's womb, victorious Lord God,
not for your own need, Ruler of nations,
but for the mercies which you to mankind
have so often shown, when they were in need of grace.
You can embrace the habitations of all peoples,
and you, mighty Lord, can count
the sands of the sea, best of all Kings.
And so I implore you, our Saviour,
by your infancy, best of Kings,
and by the wounds, Lord of hosts,
your rising, joy of princes...
and by Jordan in Judaea
- we two bathed in that stream together -
sprinkle with water, Lord of hosts,
all dwellers in the stronghold, with a joyful spirit,
as you and John in the Jordan
with your baptism inspired with joy
all this earth. Thanks be to the Lord for this forever!'
The women at the tomb and the harrowing of hell (BL Harley 603, f. 8)