Harrowing of Hell

Harrowing of Hell
(Anastasis, Descent into Limbo)
   In medieval Christian tradition, the soul of Christ was believed to have descended into hell after his crucifixion and before his resurrection, and to have delivered from their imprisonment the souls of the righteous held there from the beginning of time. The tradition, popular in art and literature, commemorates Christ’s victory over death. In the Byzantine Church, this event was called the Anastasis (meaning “resurrection”), and was a standard theme of Byzantine iconography. In OLD ENGLISH and MIDDLE ENGLISH, the event was called the Harrowing of Hell, and was a popular theme in homilies, poems, and particularly in the CORPUS CHRISTI cycles of MYSTERY PLAYS.
   The doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell seems to have its roots in the early church. Two passages from the first letter of Peter (probably a secondcentury text) allude to Christ preaching to the souls that were disobedient in the time of Noah (1 Pet. 3.19–20), and later, to the Gospel being preached among the dead (1 Pet. 4.6). So pervasive was the tradition that it was adopted as part of the Apostle’s Creed, the earliest extant universal statement of orthodox Christian belief, in which is included the phrase descendit ad inferos (“he descended into hell”). The story is first told unambiguously in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus (possibly from the third or fourth century), chapters 17 through 27 of which describe Christ’s descent into hell. Here, Satan and a character called Hades engage in a dialogue, during which the King of Glory enters hell to rescue the souls of the righteous who, until his crucifixion, had no path to salvation. He leads the Old Testament “saints” into heaven, and casts Satan himself into Tartarus.
   Some Christians had difficulty dealing with the notion that Christ would enter hell, since it was assumed only those who sinned would do so, and they would suffer torments while there. The orthodox medieval view of the Harrowing was expressed by Thomas AQUINAS, who explained that Christ did not descend in order to suffer punishment, nor to convert unbelievers in hell, but rather as a part of his triumph over death: Before his sacrifice none could enter heaven, but now he descended to deliver all those who before his death had lived in faith and in charity—those, technically, who dwelt in Limbo, that region pictured by DANTE as the topmost circle of hell where the only punishment was separation from God.
   In early Christian and Byzantine art, Christ is usually shown surrounded by a mandorla and reaching out, grasping Adam and/or Eve by the arm to raise them from a grave or tomb. As time went on, other pre-Christian figures were added, including John the Baptist,Abel, David and Solomon, and many of the prophets, and Christ is depicted trampling on the fallen gates of Hell or, sometimes, on Satan himself. In later medieval art, he might be shown entering a wide-open monstrous mouth, symbolizing the Mouth of Hell as Leviathan, to take hold of our first parents entrapped there. The Latin text of the Gospel of Nicodemus was known in England from early times. The Venerable BEDE seems to have been acquainted with the text, and there are early Old English poems alluding to Christ’s descent into hell. The first use of the term Harrowing appears in one of the sermons of AELFRIC. The story is paraphrased in the MIDDLE ENGLISH poem called the CURSOR MUNDI, but the fullest development of the theme appears in the mystery plays. All four of the extant cycles (the YORK CYCLE, the CHESTER CYCLE, the N-TOWN PLAYS and the TOWNELEY CYCLE) include a separate pageant depicting the Harrowing, in vivid and dramatic detail, generally depicting the devils as comic in their overconfidence and subsequent confusion. Probably owing something to these dramatic scenes, the great Harrowing of Hell passus from William LANGLAND’s PIERS PLOWMAN (ca. 1377) is certainly the most colorful and memorable of all medieval literary presentations of the story. Here Christ enters hell, and debates with the devil over the justification for his depriving the devil of the souls that had been his for thousands of years. The devil claims rights to the souls because of Adam’s fall, but Christ claims he has paid any outstanding debt by his death, and argues (in terms reminiscent of St. ANSELM’s argument for “Why God became man”) that he has also made satisfaction to God, and thereby saved humanity. He ultimately leads all human souls into salvation.
   ■ Butler, Michelle M. “The York/Towneley Harrowing of Hell?” Fifteenth-Century Studies 25 (2000): 115–126.
   ■ Howard, John S. “Dialectic and Spectacle in the Harrowing of Hell,” Essays in Literature 21 (1994): 3–13.
   ■ Langland,William. The Vision of Piers Plowman: A Critical Edition of the B-Text Based on Trinity College Cambridge MS B.15.17. 2nd ed. Edited by A.V. C. Schmidt. London: Dent, 1995.
   ■ Meredith, Peter. “The Iconography of Hell in the English Cycles: A Practical Perspective.” In The Iconography of Hell, edited by Clifford Davidson and Thomas H. Seiler, 158–186. Kalamazoo, Mich.:Medieval Institute, 1992.
   ■ Mullini, Roberta. “Action and Discourse in The Harrowing of Hell: the Defeat of Evil,”Medieval English Theatre 11 (1989): 116–128.
   ■ Simpson, James. Piers Plowman: An Introduction to the B-Text. London: Longman, 1990.
   ■ Tamburr, Karl. “From Narrative to Drama: The Transformation of the Gospel of Nicodemus in Middle English,”Medieval Perspectives 16 (2001): 135–150.
   ■ The York Plays. Edited by Richard Beadle. London: Arnold, 1982.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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