The Harrowing of hell in the english mystery cycles; perspectives on the Corpus Christi drama

Tamburr, Karl, Department of English, University of Virginia
Kellogg, Robert L., Department of English, University of Virginia
Earl, Jane, University of Virginia

The Creed attests that Christ "descended into Hell," and from this assertion exegetes found numerous passages in the Bible to substantiate the doctrine of the Descent into or Harrowing of Hell. Typologically, the Harrowing is connected to both the Exodus and Judgment and is important in the liturgy and rites of the medieval Church, especially baptism, conversion, individual purgation of sin, and exorcism. Its connection to Judgment implies a kind
of penitential mode of devotion by reminding each sinner to repent his misdeeds in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ.

In contrast to other episodes in the Corpus Christi drama, which emphasize Jesus' humanity, the Harrowing portrays Him as a warrior-king, stately, wise, and powerful in battle. Even during Christ's life on earth though, righteous characters, who possess spiritual sight or the ability to perceive inner, spiritual truth, honor Him as they would a king, but also sympathize with His human suffering. Thus, even the sinful Mary Magdalene, the proud doctors in the Temple, and the ignorant Longinus are saved by Christ's mercy, wisdom, and miracles. In contrast, the worldly tyrants, Pilate, Herod, Annas, and Caiaphas, are spiritually blind to His true identity and are literal-minded about His claims to kingship even when they are clearly confronted by evidence of His divine might. The Harrowing shows Christ spiritually fulfilling His role as king in His subjugation of Satan, the type of all tyrants.

In addition, the confrontation between Christ and the devil during the Harrowing is traditionally conceived as a battle, but in the Corpus Christi drama this conflict is transformed into a debate on the issues of Christ's identity and justice. Satan loses the dispute because, like the earthly villains, he is literal- minded about both Christ's identity and the very nature of justice. His insistence on the letter of the law is a stance associated with the Old Law, and he fails to realize that, by deceiving him and harrowing Hell, Christ has instituted the New Law of grace and has extended it to the generations who lived and died before His birth.

Contrast is a concept integral to the Harrowing play. Not only can the entire episode be described as a movement from "wo to wel" or "bale to blis," but the major patterns of imagery, especially the movements from discord to harmony and darkness to light, as well as the structure of the play reinforce the sense of contrast. Here light and harmony are more than metaphors for Christ and are associated with the notions of grace, joy, conversion to the New Law, and heavenly bliss. A tentative staging of the episode based on all this evidence--but particularly the principles of contrast and symmetry--is proposed and attempts to show how theological doctrine can be represented in dramatic terms.

Finally, the Harrowing unifies the cycles by recapitulating the important events of Christian history and by looking ahead to Judgment. At times it lends a kind of tripartite unity to the cycles in which figural and doctrinal connections between episodes are reinforced by both verbal and stage-action parallels. At other times it creates a circular unity which frames the overall linear structure of
the drama by linking the episodes set in the Otherworld, the Creation and Fall of the Angels and Judgment. This circularity suggests that all human history is under divine providence, that it is in reality the artifact of God, who is Himself the beginning and end of all things.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Mysteries and miracle-plays, English, English drama -- To 1500

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

Thesis originally deposited on 2016-03-14 in version 1.28 of Libra. This thesis was migrated to Libra2 on 2017-03-23 16:34:33.

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