Play 37, The Harrowing of Hell
Play 37, THE HARROWING OF HELL: FOOTNOTE
Play 37, THE HARROWING OF HELL: EXPLANATORY NOTES
ABBREVIATIONS: AV: Authorized (“King James”) Version; Meditations: Meditations on the Life of Christ, trans. Ragusa and Green; MED: Middle English Dictionary; OED: Oxford English Dictionary; RB: Richard Beadle, ed., York Plays; REED: Records of Early English Drama; YA: Davidson and O’Connor, York Art; York Breviary: Breviarium ad usum insignis ecclesie Eboracensis; York Missal: Missale ad usum insignis ecclesiae Eboracensis.
References to the Ordo paginarum are to REED: York, 1:16–27.
The Harrowing of Hell, detailing the story of Christ’s acts between his death and resurrection from the dead, has only a slight biblical source in 1 Peter 3:19 that reports Jesus “preach[ing] to those spirits that were in prison,” augmented by Old Testament predictions believed to be present in Isaias 9:2 and Psalm 23:7 (AV 24). The story, which is still considered of great significance by the Eastern Church and is mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed, developed a full narrative in the Gospel of Nicodemus.1 In England this source made the story accessible not only through the Middle English version of the Gospel of Nicodemus but also by means of other sources such as the Golden Legend.2 As King remarks, the Descensus is integral to the Holy Saturday liturgy.3 The York pageant, produced by the Saddlers, is nearly identical to the corresponding play in the Towneley manuscript, which, however, must have derived from an exemplar separate from the Register. According to the Ordo paginarum, the characters were twelve good spirits and six bad, but obviously the others present in the extant play could hardly have been left out. The verse form is an eleven-line stanza. Music is returned to the cycle in this play, with the singing of the patriarchs and prophets at the beginning and again especially as they are taken up into heaven by Michael. The stage set must have a typical hellmouth, at the doors of which Jesus will appear. The doors will fall before him so that he can enter to rescue the patriarchs and prophets. The iconography may be studied in glass now in All Saints, Pavement but formerly in the Church of St. Saviour.4
7–8 aboute nowe woll I bee / That I have bought for to unbynde. Jesus, or actually his soul (Anima Christi) since his “bodie bidis in grave” (line 23), will unbind those who have been in bondage in limbo on account of their lack of access to grace up to this time. With his (innocent) blood he has purchased those who will be released (lines 11–12) and hence in so doing he will have tricked the devil into surrendering his right to them.
36 s.d. Tunc cantent. The singing is ordered in a late addition to the manuscript, but no specific song is noted.
39 Foure thowsande and sex hundereth yere. Compare the lyric “Adam lay i-bowndyn”: “fowre thowsand wynter thowt he not too long” (Brown, ed., Religious Lyrics of the XVth Century, p. 120).
41–42 see I signe of solace seere, / A glorious gleme. A bright light that in the next speech by Eve will be identified with paradise. Possible means of creating such an effect are discussed by Butterworth, Theatre of Fire, pp. 55–78.
50–54 I, Ysaias . . . lende. Referring to Isaias 9:2, which reports the great light shining into the darkness unto “them that dwelt in the region of the shadow of death,” but with borrowing from the Middle English Gospel of Nicodemus, p. 99; for example: “folke in merkenes dwellande” (MS. Add., line 1193).
58 That seede to save us nowe. Christ is the Son descended of the Father, hence derived from his “seede.”
65–68 Lorde, late thy servaunt . . . in lande. The Nunc dimittis; see the Purification pageant, Play 17, lines 415–27, above.
85–96 Of that same light lernyng have I . . . fro payne. Moses too has had previous experience of the light, at the Transfiguration when Elijah also had been present. Following his speech, the action turns to the denizens of hell.
101 this uggely noyse. The devils have heard the singing, and interpret the harmonious as its opposite. Devils were believed to be unmusical, capable of noise but not harmony to which they are hostile. Their shouting represents lack of restraint.
110 sperde in speciall space. That is, in limbo, mentioned above (line 102). Belsabub claims to be the “prince and principall” of this “space” (line 111).
119 Lucifer, lovely of lyre. Irony. The devils are conventionally very ugly indeed, and this is a sign that their values pertaining to physical beauty are upside down. For a fine example of the devil in the window of a York parish church (St. Martin Coney Street, located next to the Common Hall), see Inventory of the Historical Monuments, vol. 5, color pl. 61.
121, 123 Attollite portas . . . eternales. Psalm 23:7 (AV 24:7). Jesus traditionally holds a cross staff with banner, and has a shroud draped over his body; see, for example, Hildburgh, “English Alabaster Carvings,” pp. 89–90, pl. XX. The staff would have been used to pound on the gates of hell, which do not collapse in this first instance; there is a similar use of a staff, in this case a bishop’s crozier, against the door in the consecration ritual of a church or cathedral. David’s speech (lines 127–32) affirms Jesus in the attack on the citadel of hell in terms of a battle. The Golden Legend reports that Jesus’ voice was “like thunder” (Jacobus de Voragine, 1:223).
134 All erthely men to me are thrall. Satan is, of course, mistaken; since in the Crucifixion humans have been redeemed from their bondage to him by one who seems a most unlikely choice — a man without regular lodging, house, or hall appropriate to royalty.
140 sette furthe watches on the wall. Embedded stage direction; devils must be dispatched to the walls, suggesting an upper level above the hellmouth itself. Such devils, for example, appear on the walls in the Harrowing in the Speculum humanae salvationis (Wilson and Wilson, Medieval Mirror, p. 194); this illustration has flames coming from the space within hell behind them. See also C. Davidson, From Creation to Doom, pp. 142–43.
159 I knowe his trantis fro toppe to taile. But Satan indeed will be tricked: he will be the beguiler beguiled by Jesus, who has deceived him by means of his appearance in human form and his humility.
165 I entered in Judas. A conventional notion, but a number of inconsistencies, as also in the story of Pilate’s wife, will be noted in Satan’s attempt to undermine Jesus.
181–83 Principes, portas tollite . . . rex glorie. The second challenge based on Psalm 23:7, substituting the final portion of the verse and differing from the Vulgate reading.
187–91 That may thou in my Sawter see. David’s reference is to Psalm 23, but see the Middle English Gospel of Nicodemus, p. 109, and Jacobus de Voragine, Golden Legend, 1:223.
194 Opynne up and latte my pepul passe. The third challenge, omitting Latin and echoing the Exodus theme. Now the gates must fall away, as the following speech by the first Devil indicates: “brosten are alle oure bandis of bras” (line 196). Limbo’s fortifications have fallen. In the panel of painted glass at All Saints, Pavement cited above, Jesus steps forth over broken gates and chains. Glass, possibly with York connections, at Great Malvern shows metal hinges and a devil pinned under the gates (Rushforth, Medieval Christian Imagery, pp. 385–86, fig. 177).
229–33 Thy fadir knewe I wele be sight . . . myght. Satan is deceived. The substance of the debate that will follow is predicated on Satan’s mistake in taking Jesus’ death as a sign of his victory over him; but as earlier theologians such as Gregory of Nyssa had insisted, Satan is like a great hungry fish who will take Jesus’ bait, while beneath his humanity is the hook of his divinity. Peter Lombard had spoken of the cross as a trap that had been baited by the blood of Christ, while Satan is the mouse caught therein; for discussion, see Nelson, “Temptation of Christ,” p. 219; Macaulay, “Play of the Harrowing of Hell,” pp. 115–19; and MacCulloch, Harrowing of Hell, pp. 203–04. See in particular lines 249–50: “Mi godhede here I hidde / In Marie modir myne.”
255 I schall thee prove be right resoune. Satan is a rationalist and sceptic, fully believing that he still has the right to the souls of those in limbo. Jesus will counter with Old Testament prophecy which predicts with certainty that he will “have thame boughte with bale” (line 275).
277–88 Nowe sen thee liste allegge the lawes, / Thou schalte be atteynted . . . in helle. Satan tries to turn biblical texts against Jesus. The citation of Job — “he that shall go down to hell shall not come up” (7:9) — is easily confuted by another familiar passage from Job regarded as prophetic. Jesus is a divine fisherman who can “draw out the leviathan with a hook, or . . . tie his tongue with a cord” (40:20; compare AV 41:1).
325 Nowe here my hande. A handshake was a normal way of concluding an agreement, and not, as today, a common sign of greeting. Satan is happy since he believes he is promised even more victims for torment in his torture house which is hell (line 328), and he plans to turne — i.e., corrupt — more people as a means to this end (line 332).
339–40 The archangel Michael is designated to bind Satan; among the apocalypse scenes in Great East Window in the Minster painted by John Thornton in 1405–08, Michael, who is chaining the Devil, holds a key; see French, York Minster: The Great East Window, p. 128. In the York pageant, Satan will be confined to a “selle” (line 342) where he must remain seated. It will do him no good to call on Mahounde. In the Northern Passion, it is Jesus who binds Satan, who will be “fested fast / With bandes that sall ever last, / And so he sall be bunden ay / Untill it be domes day” (1:213).
349–80 The Extraction of Souls. Conventionally Jesus takes Adam by the forearm and leads him out, followed by Eve and the others. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Virgil recalls how “a Great Lord” wearing a crown of victory (vittoria cornato) “carried off the shade [ombra] of our first father, of his son Abel, and the shade of Noah, of Moses, the obedient legislator, of father Abraham, David the king, of Israel, his father, and his sons, and Rachel, . . . and many others” (Inferno, canto 4, lines 52–61). The Extraction is shown at York in the glass in All Saints, Pavement and in other depictions of the scene, including a restored wall painting at Pickering in the North Riding (YA, pp. 87–89, fig. 25; Tristram, English Wall Painting, p. 154). In the Pickering example, as in the Great Malvern glass cited above, Eve holds an unchewed apple that she will return to Jesus as a sign of the reversal of the Fall.
374–75 Ne derelinquas, Domine, / Animam meam in inferno. Psalm 15:10 (AV 16:10).
380 full of filthe. In the scene dramatizing the Fall of the Angels at the beginning of the York cycle, hell had been shown to be a filthy place. Its smell, as for Dante, was presumably of excrement (see Seiler, “Filth and Stench,” esp. p. 132).
384 s.d. Tunc cantent. Again a late rubric calling for singing, without identifying the piece to be sung. It appears that there will be a procession, with singing, as the souls are taken up by Michael into bliss.
400 blisse us with thi holy honde. In the Gospel of Nicodemus, Jesus holds out his hand and makes the sign of the cross, or, in a variant text of this work, makes a sign of the cross on Adam’s forehead (Gospel of Nicodemus, p. 119; James, ed., Apocryphal New Testament, p. 139).
408 Laus tibi cum gloria, etc. If this is a liturgical piece, it has not been identified. While it seems to be an incipit, with “etc.” signifying the continuation of the song, Rastall points out that this line, integral to the stanza, seems rather to introduce an unspecified song at the end of the pageant (Minstrels Playing, p. 35), in which case the citation of the song here is misplaced. It thus may be that the singing noted in the late rubrics added at line 384 was begun only after the last line of the play was spoken.
Play 37, THE HARROWING OF HELL: TEXTUAL NOTES
ABBREVIATIONS: Bevington: David Bevington, ed., Medieval Drama (1975); Köbling: E. Köbling, “Beiträge zur Erklärung und Textkritik der York Plays”; LTS: Lucy Toulmin Smith, ed., The York Plays (1885); RB: Richard Beadle, ed., The York Plays (1972) (incorporating numerous emendations from other sources); RB2: Richard Beadle, “Corrections to The York Plays,” in Gerald Byron Kinneavy, A Concordance to the York Plays (1986), pp. xxxi–xxxii; s.d.: stage direction; Sykes: A. C. Cawley, ed., “The Sykes MS of the York Scriveners’ Play”; Towneley: Martin Stevens and A. C. Cawley, eds., The Towneley Plays.
The base text for this edition is London, British Library, MS. Add. 35290, called the “Register” in the York civic records and here identified by the abbreviation Reg. Some variations in lineation from the manuscript are not noted here; see RB and Beadle and Meredith’s The York Play: A Facsimile. In most cases the line numbering in the present text is consistent with RB. Lineation of alliterative verse throughout is based on Reg, with line numbering adjusted accordingly to account for half lines. Scribes are identified as follows: Scribe A; Scribe B: main scribe; JC: John Clerke; LH: later scribal hand (unidentified).
1 JESUS. Reg: written by LH.
10 frewte. Compare Towneley: fraude.
36, s.d. Tunc cantent. Reg: stage direction by LH.
40 this stedde. Compare Towneley: darknes stad.
44 sesse. Compare Towneley: slake.
49 ISAIAH. So LTS, RB; Reg: Isaac.
58 seede. Possibly an error (for ?deede).
61 This. This edition; Reg, RB: Thhis; LTS: Yhis.
62 the. So Towneley, RB; Reg, LTS: this.
64 halsed homely. Compare Towneley: halsid hym homely.
83 laide. Letter e altered to a in Reg.
97 I DIABOLUS. Compare Towneley: Rybald.
99 II DIABOLUS. By a different hand in Reg; compare Towneley: Belzabub.
135 lad. So Towneley; Reg, LTS, RB: lady.
150 traveses. RB, following Towneley: travesses; Reg, LTS: traves.
185 what harlot. So LTS, RB, interpolated from Towneley; Reg omits.
195 I DIABOLUS. So RB; Reg omits I.
baill. Added in LH in Reg; compare Towneley: bayll.
196 of. Interlined by LH in Reg.
209 ferde. Compare Towneley: flayd.
211 At left, by JC: nota caret nova loquela (deleted).
228 wonne in mirthe. Compare Towneley: In blys to dwell.
242 neyd thowe crave. Reg: added by JC, canceling Scribe B’s thus thee I telle; compare Towneley: thurt thee crave.
244 as. Reg: interlined by later scribe.
knave. Reg: written over the Scribe B’s braide.
253 Line as written at bottom of page, deleted in red ink, and rewritten on next page in Reg.
271 servauntis. So LTS, RB; Towneley: servandys.
274 in. Added in Reg by LH.
301 movys. So LTS; Reg: monys; RB, after Towneley: menys.
342 selle. Compare Towneley: sete.
347 dolle. This edition; Reg: dolee; LTS, RB: dole.
354 hundreth. So Towneley.
375 in. So LTS, RB, after Towneley; Reg omits.
378 saules fro thee be. Compare Towneley: thi sayntys to se.
380 repleye. Compare Towneley: not fle.
384 OMNIS. So RB; Reg, followed by LTS, has Omnis as part of dialogue (not ruled off from previous speech).
384 s.d. Tunc cantent. Reg: stage direction in LH.
400 honde. Reg: Scribe B: hende, corrected by LH to honde.
408 etc. Reg: added in LH at end of line.
Play 37, THE HARROWING OF HELL: EXPLANATORY NOTE FOOTNOTES
Footnote 1 See James, ed., Apocryphal New Testament, pp. 123–42. An overview appears in Turner, “Descendit ad Inferos.”
Footnote 2 Middle-English Harrowing of Hell and Gospel of Nicodemus, pp. 97–121; Jacobus de Voragine, Golden Legend, 1:222–24.
Footnote 3 King, York Mystery Cycle, pp. 157–58.
Footnote 4 YA, p. 88, fig. 25. For discussion, see especially Sheingorn, “'Who can open the doors of his face?'” and, for practical aspects, Meredith, “Iconography of Hell.”
Go To Play 38, The Resurrection