22. The Harrowing of Hell
Play 22, THE HARROWING OF HELL: FOOTNOTES
1 Here begins the deliverance of souls etc.
2 Lines 43–44: Love that Lord with joy / who would sell his life for us
3 And they should all sing “Savior of the World,” verse one (see note)
4 Lift up your gates, O ye princes, and be ye lifted up, O eternal gates: and the King of Glory shall enter in (Psalm 23/24:7)
5 And [you] know that he won Lazarus away from you
6 Lift up your gates, princes, etc.
7 He would destroy us even if there were more of us
8 Lines 402–03: Do not leave my soul, Lord, in hell (Psalm 15/16:10)
9 Here ends the deliverance of souls from hell
Play 22, THE HARROWING OF HELL: EXPLANATORY NOTES
ABBREVIATIONS: Chester: The Chester Mystery Cycle, ed. Lumiansky and Mills (1974); CT: The Canterbury Tales, ed. Benson (1987); DSL: Dictionary of the Scots Language; Elliott: The Apocryphal New Testament, ed. Elliott; EP: The Towneley plays, ed. England and Pollard (1897); MED: Middle English Dictionary; MS: Huntington MS HM 1 (“the Towneley manuscript”); N-Town: The N-Town Plays, ed. Sugano (2007); OED: Oxford English Dictionary; REED: Records of Early English Drama; SC: The Towneley Plays, eds. Stevens and Cawley (1994); s.d.: stage direction; Whiting: Whiting, Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases; York: The York Corpus Christi Plays, ed. Davidson (2011).
The story of Jesus’ descent into hell and deliverance of all righteous souls, commonly known as the harrowing (robbing or despoiling) of hell, is ultimately based on 1 Peter 3:18–20 as elaborated in the apocryphal but highly popular Gospel of Nicodemus. A Middle English poetic version of this work was a direct source for the York Saddlers’ pageant (see Craigie, “The Gospel of Nicodemus and the York Mystery Plays”), from which the Towneley version is derived, the York borrowings being recognizable by the 12-line “Northern Septenar” stanza — a common stanza form in York, also used in the Pharaoh and Doctors pageants borrowed here (plays 6 and 14).
Before 1 Incipit extraccio animarum etc. The play’s explicit clarifies that et cetera here stands in for ab inferno — from hell. This edition, however, follows SC in assigning the more common title, the Harrowing of Hell.
7–8 In anger, pyne, and mekyll wo / I dyde on cros this day. That is, I died on the cross today in trouble, torment, and much woe (see MED anger (n.), sense 1). As Jesus has not yet been resurrected, it is his spirit that speaks here; in the N-Town Passion, the deposition and burial is framed by the two parts of the Harrowing of Hell, which is carried out by a character explicitly designated Anima Christi — the soul of Christ — who in medieval visual representations typically carries a cross-staff with a banner. It is likely that this character enters and speaks from audience level, outside the stage representing Hell (see the note to line 210 below).
10 To chalange that is myne. The verb “to challenge” is here a legal term meaning “to lay claim to” (see MED chalengen (v.), sense 4a), which cites this line.
14 Thrugh fraude of erthly fode. That is, through temptation using the forbidden fruit. The equivalent line in York redundantly reads “frewte of erthely foode” (York 37.10); as SC note (p. 593n14), “fraude” is likely the original reading.
17–20 And now . . . . gar thare gammes begyn. The “stede” that he will restore is the heavenly paradise from which the devil fell; as the next stanzas make clear, the token that he sends ahead of him into hell, to gladden the souls imprisoned there, is a bright light — a detail emphasized in the Gospel of Nicodemus 18:1 (Elliott, p. 186), with allusion to Isaiah 9:2 (see lines 47–48 and note). The plural “tokyns” is used at line 29 to refer to this light, where the equivalent line in York (37.41) refers to a singular “signe.”
27 Foure thowsand and sex hundreth yere. The Gospel of Nicodemus 19:1 calculates the time between the creation of Adam and the incarnation to be 5,500 years (Elliott, p. 186; see also Hulme, Middle-English Harrowing of Hell, p. 130, lines 1723–24); subtracting the years of Adam’s life (930, according to Genesis 5:5) and adding the thirty-odd years of Jesus’ life on earth (see line 5) gives Adam a total of 4,600 years in hell.
30 A gloryous gleme to make us glad. The repeated reference to this light (see note to lines 17–20 above) indicates that it was an important stage effect; for a discussion of such effects in medieval theater, see Butterworth, Theatre of Fire, pp. 55–78.
44, s.d. Et cantent omnes Saluater mundi, primum versum. The first verse of Salvator mundi, a hymn sung at Compline (the final office of the day) and particularly associated with Christmas in medieval and early modern England, is as follows:
Salvator mundi, Domine, Saviour of the world, Lord, Qui nos salvasti hodie, Who has saved us today, In hac nocte nos protege In this night protect us Et salva omni tempore. And save (us) for all time.
Both text and translation are from Clay, Private Prayers, pp. 282 and 41. A late stage direction in the York MS specifies singing but no particular hymn.
47–48 I spake of folke . . . on theym lende. See Isaiah 9:2, and note to lines 17–20 above.
52 to-fold it kende. Isaiah 60:1–3, much like Isaiah 9:2, refers to the arrival of the light of God to those in darkness.
57–60 I saide Lord . . . . No longer lyst I lyf in lande. See Luke 2:29–32. This famous speech is known by its incipit in the Latin Vulgate: Nunc dimittis (“Now dismiss . . .”). The episode that should include this speech is missing from the incomplete Purification play; see the headnote to play 13.
65 As a voce cryand I kend. See John 1:23 and note to 15.21–22. The equivalent line in York is more regular in rhythm: “Als voyce criand to folke I kende” (York 37.73).
77 Now this same nyght lernyng have I. / To me, Moyses, he shewid his myght. The equivalent lines in York, like some others in the play, make more sense and preserve what is likely the original alliterative pattern: “Of that same light lernyng have I; / To me, Moyses, he mustered his myght” (York 37.85–86).
78–84 To me Moyses . . . . agans that light. This transfiguration of Jesus in the presence of Moses and Elijah, based on Matthew 17:1–9, is dramatized in York 23.
89 Ribald (speech heading). This character is given the speech heading of 1 Diabolus (Devil I) in the York version, but is referred to as “rebalde” in that play (York 37:99), meaning “rascal” or “villain” (see MED ribaud(e (n.), sense 2a). His speech complains of “sorrow” and a great “dyn” (lines 91–92), which is likely a demonic response to the joy with which the souls are greeting the light of Jesus; see lines 101–04.
99 Beelzebub (speech heading). This name (usually translated as “lord of the flies”) is mentioned in 2 Kings 1 as well as in the gospels (see for example Matthew 10:25–28 and 12:24–27). The character is simply designated as II Diabolus (Devil 2) in York.
102 lymbo. Limbo was the name for the outer portion of hell (the Latin term limbus meaning edge or boundary) reserved for those who died prior to the crucifixion and the benefit of Christ’s salvation.
109 Yee, though he do not, I shall. That is, if Christ does not save them from hell (lines 107–08), I shall keep them safely here, locked in limbo (the “specyall space” of line 110).
113 Astarot and Anaball. The names Astharoth and Baal (or plural Baalim) are paired in several biblical passages, including Judges 2:13, 3:7, and 10:6, and (1 Kings) 7:4 and 12:10; the name Anaball, likely related to Baal, appears to be unique to these Towneley and York plays (see York 37.113). Here both names, like those in line 115, designate subordinate devils.
115 Bell-berith and Bellyall. Baalberith is named in Judges 9:4 as a false god, while Belial, meaning “wickedness,” is contrasted with Christ in 2 Corinthians 6:15. See also York 37.115.
119 Sir Lucyfer. While mentioned here, as in York (37.119), Lucifer never actually appears; Lucifer and Satan (line 117) are often explicitly identified as one and the same.
After 120 Attollite portas principes vestras et elevamini / porte eternales et introibit rex glorie. This extrametrical Latin quotation is worked into the dialogue in York, where the line order and some speech ascriptions also differ through the next stanzas. See also the line (and note) following 188.
126 And set the waches on the wall. The action requires two levels: Ribald will later speak from up on the wall to Satan below at line 218; see also the note to line 210, below.
162 From hens or it be war. That is, Jesus will not get out of hell before things get worse for him. The equivalent line in York reads, likely in error, “Away or I be ware” (York 37.154).
170 The lath Lazare of Betany. The same phrase is used in the Conspiracy play (17.150), but differs from the parallel line in York, “Nowe late Lazar of Betannye” (York 37.162).
171–74 Bot to the Jues . . . . forward to fulfyll. Satan claims responsibility for the betrayal (see John 13:2) and the crucifixion in accordance with the “abuse of power” theory of medieval theology, which holds that Satan had rights over humanity after the fall, but not over Jesus as God; by helping to bring about the death of Jesus, Satan lost those rights. However, no other play in either York or Towneley makes reference to diabolic influence over these events.
After 188 Attollite portas principes vestras, etc. See the line following 120 (and note). As before, the extrametrical Latin quotation is integrated into a regular 12-line stanza in the York text; here and in what follows, the stanza form has been lost, resulting in apparently separate quatrains. David refers to the quotation itself (from Psalm 23:7 in the Vulgate; 24:7 in many modern translations), along with Psalm 106:16, in his next lines (lines 193–94).
190 shalbe cryde. That is, shall be proclaimed. See MED crien (v.), sense 7; see also 2.410–11 and note.
197–208 Ye prynces . . . . shall not twyn. This exchange between Jesus and the devils has no direct parallel in York.
210 Open up and let my pepill pas. This line (quoting Moses’ words to Pharaoh in Exodus 5.1; see also 6.136, spoken by God) serves as cue for stage action that sees the barrier to hell break, and the gates open, as the next lines indicate. However, Ribald evidently remains on top of the wall or battlements at line 218, indicating a two-level structure (see also note to line 126 above). In York, the stage was of course a pageant wagon, the main level of which was likely gated and barred (through which the patriarchs and devils alike are visible), but also shaped in part like a large mouth — the traditional hell-mouth found in most medieval representations of hell and of the harrowing. Jesus speaks from outside hellmouth, likely at the level of the audience.
225 To sett hym sore that is sone saide. “To set him sore” can mean either to make him sore or wretched (see line 224) or, similarly, to sorely beset him. Either way, as the second part of the line indicates, this will be easier said than done.
238 I will theym save that shall thee sow. As SC note (p. 597n238), the alliterative use of the obscure northern verb sow (see DSL sow(e (v.)), meaning to cause pain, is evidence that this line is older than York’s “Thame wolle I save, I telle thee nowe” (York 37.218).
240–42 Bot in my pryson . . . . thou wote as how. As God, Jesus claims authority even over hell; Satan has served only as warden there (see also note to lines 171–74 above).
250 He was a wright his meett to wyn. That is, he made his living as a carpenter; “to win meat” means “to earn one’s livelihood” (MED mete (n.1), sense 1a(b)).
252 The utmast ende of all thy kyn. That is, the best lineage you can claim. As the next lines indicate, he of course is wrong.
276 Thou moyttys as man dos into myre. You argue (“moot”) such as to drive people into the mire — that is, by error (“all wrang,” line 284; see MED don (v.1), sense 6a). York 37.256 reads “Thou motes his men into the myre.”
289–90 They saide that I shuld be that ilke, / In hell where I shuld intre in. The correct reading is likely that of York, which also preserves the rhyme: “Thai saide that I schulde be obitte, / To hell that I schulde entre in” (York 37.269–70) — that is, they said that I should die, that I should enter hell.
301–03 As Salamon saide . . . . os clerkys knawes. See Proverbs 2:19.
305–08 Job . . . . fynde relese in hell. See Job 7:9.
310–18 In hell shalbe no relese . . . . they shall furth weynde. In the lines that follow, Jesus draws a distinction between hell, from which no release is possible, and limbo, from which he will soon release the souls of the faithful.
321–28 Whi and will . . . . I shall thee bynde. This irregular or incomplete stanza (missing four lines), in which Satan switches suddenly from argument to supplication, has no counterpart in York.
334–36 Thou shall have Caym . . . . Judas and Architophell. On the death of Judas, see Matthew 27:5; Achitophel was a counselor to King David who hanged himself after the failure of his conspiracy with David’s son, Absolom (2 Kings 17:23). For the inclusion of Cain with this group, see the notes to 2.361–64 and 27.107–13. Suicide is considered an unforgivable sin, as it not only denies the power of God’s grace (like despair more generally; see 23.311–24 and note), but also prevents the possibility of its being granted.
337 Daton and Abaron. These two men conspired against Moses and Aaron during the Israelites’ sojourn in the wilderness, for which they and their families fall alive into hell (Numbers 16:30–33).
341–42 And all that will not lere my law / That I have left in land for new. Medieval theology considered the “new law” of Christ, as embodied primarily in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), to be the completion or fulfilment of the ‘old’ Jewish law (see in particular Matthew 5:17–18). Romans 7:6 characterizes Jewish law as “the oldness of the letter” in contrast with “the newness of spirit.”
345 red by raw. That is, correctly read or understood, with everything in order; see 14.61–62 and note.
353 Now here my hand. Satan — traditionally the Father of Lies (John 8:44) — here takes a vow, raising his hand in a traditional gesture of oath-taking.
367–68 Devill . . . where thou shall syt. While York 37.342 has “selle” (cell) rather than “sete”, the Towneley reading accords with the final word in the line. In the York text, Jesus explicitly has the Archangel Michael bind Satan (York 37.339–40; compare lines 363–64 here), prior to his sinking into the pit of hell — a lower level of hell where his seat awaits, in allusion to the heavenly throne that he once attempted to usurp (see 1.76, s.d. and note). In the Middle English Gospel of Nicodemus, Jesus himself binds Satan; see Hulme, Middle-English Harrowing of Hell, p. 112, lines 1441–44. The binding of Satan and his imprisonment in the lowest depths of hell is based on Apocalypse 20:1–3; see also the note to 27.140–41.
384 How that thi mercy makys us dere. How your mercy makes us worthy. The York text has clene (York 37.389), evidently an error for clere (likewise meaning “pure”) as necessary for the rhyme, and a better reading overall than dere, here.
386 More tornamentys to tast. See 20.675 and note.
397–400 David . . . . saide it shuld be thus. These lines, along with the rest of the stanza, are assigned to John the Baptist in York.
416 Te Deum laudamus. This hymn (“God, we praise you”), well-known in the Middle Ages due to its use at the end of the Matins service, is sung both here (as in the Chester Harrowing of Hell; see Chester 17.276 s.d.) and at the end of the Judgment play (see 27.830 and note); in York it is sung during the first play, prior to the fall of the angels.
Play 22, THE HARROWING OF HELL: TEXTUAL NOTES
ABBREVIATIONS: EP: The Towneley Plays, ed. England and Pollard (EETS, 1897); Facs: The Towneley Cycle: A Facsimile of Huntington MS HM 1, ed. Cawley and Stevens; MED: Middle English Dictionary; MS: Huntington MS HM 1 (base text); SC: The Towneley Plays, ed. Stevens and Cawley (EETS, 1994); s.d.: stage direction; Surtees: The Towneley Mysteries, ed. Raine; York: The York Corpus Christi Plays, ed. Davidson (2011).
Before 1 MS: in the top margin above the title a later hand has written Your louinge frennd Willm and below that, lyng.
1–2 My Fader me . . . for mankynde sake. MS: the first two lines are written in a formal variant of the main Anglicana hand.
22 To know I will com sone. MS: a later hand has written you in the right margin after this line.
27 Foure thowsand and sex hundreth. So EP. MS: iiij ml and vj C.
97 bynde thise boys. MS has bende oure bowes, corrected by the main scribe.
99 royes. So SC, following York 37.99 (royis). MS: rores.
168 gilory. So SC, following York 37.160 (gilery). MS: glory.
240 Bot. MS has ff (=F) crossed out before this word.
251 mynnys. So EP, SC. MS: mymnys.
254 dyn. So EP, SC. MS: dy.
260 And. Following York 37.240. MS: In, likely misreading a symbol for and.
335 hastys. So EP, SC. MS: haftys.
378 thiself. MS: in the space above this word (after line 376) a sprawling hand has written thie selfe.
382 Foure thowsand and sex hundreth. So EP. MS: iiij ml and vj hundreth.
397 Moses (speech heading). MS: just below this a later hand has written Semeon.
409 Make myrth, both more and les. MS: above this line in the top margin, vertical to the text, a later hand has written Joh, then Slo, then g, the end of each word having been cropped with the edge of the page.