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The History of the Harrowing of Hell

harrowing performance_slim

The fragmentary Latin Harrowing of Hell in the early ninth-century ‘Book of Cerne’ (Cambridge University Library MS Ll.1.10) is probably the earliest dramatic text from the British Isles. The Narrator’s use of the present tense suggests stage directions, and the masculine ending of Eve’s conparatus, applied to herself, suggests that the writer was thinking of a male performer rather than the female character. The Book of Cerne includes an acrostic prayer in which the opening initials of each line spell out the words AEDELVALD EPISCOPVS; the manuscript comes from Mercia and there was a Bishop Æðelwald of Lichfield (818-830), but David Dumville (Journal of Theological Studies 1972) argues that it more probably refers to Bishop Æðiluald of Lindisfarne (died 740). This remains uncertain, but whatever its origin, the semi-dramatic form of the text remains.

The Book of Cerne fragment begins with the Narrator’s introduction of the Chorus of Souls and breaks off early in Eve’s speech of penitence. A more complete version in Old English survives in the later-tenth-century Blickling Homilies (now in Princeton University Library), where the direct speech section continues with the freeing of Eve and a song in praise of Christ by the chorus of souls led by Abraham; the homily continues with a long narrative section leading up to the Last Judgement, but this was probably the point at which the play finished. In the Blickling Homily, the introduction of the chorus of souls is preceded by a scene in which the devils lament Christ’s arrival in Hell. This was almost certainly not part of the Book of Cerne play, but we include it because it is in direct speech and is part of the story of the Harrowing of Hell; we have divided the devils’ speeches between two devils to give an antiphonal effect – a device familiar to Anglo-Saxon liturgical performers.

Neither the Book of Cerne nor the Blickling Homily includes any words for Christ or Satan, although any quasi-dramatic performance must have included mimed actions by both of them. But another contemporary liturgical ceremony, the dedication of a church, was also understood as a re-enactment of the Harrowing of Hell, and gives both of them words derived from Psalm 24 via the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus; we use a ninth-century version of this (from Paris, BN MS lat. 9428), from Metz, and place it between the devils’ dialogue and the actual Harrowing.

One of the problems involved in reviving this quasi-dramatic text is that its original Latin is fragmentary while its Old English version has mutated into a sermon. Our production is an experiment in the modern use of the text as liturgical drama, and is in modern English, except that Christ sings and Satan speaks in Latin.