The Harrowing of Hell in Medieval England

The Harrowing of Hell in Medieval England

Karl Tamburr


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A survey of the important tradition of the Descent into Hell, and its depiction in the culture of medieval England.
The liturgy and theology of the early Church as well as Apostles' Creed declared that Christ "descended into hell", and it became a major subject of the literature, drama and visual arts of the middle ages. Its treatment in medieval England is the subject of this study. Each chapter concerns an important aspect in a particular era of literary history and generally begins by discussing a representative work of art to introduce the issues that follow. They begin by examining the Harrowing's place in the Church liturgy as a context for the poetry and drama derived from it, while later chapters focus on the enormous influence of the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus as well as literary works that present an alternative version of the Descent. The final chapter reveals the decline of this tradition when many Reformation theologians and artists rejected the Harrowing as unorthodox.

The late KARL TAMBURR was Professor of English at Sweet Briar College, central Virginia.


June 2007
17 black and white illustrations
224 pages
23.4x15.6 cm
ISBN: 9781843841173
Format: Hardback
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Table of Contents

The Harrowing of Hell and the Easter Liturgy
The Deliverance of the Righteous and Christ as Warrior-King
Providential View and Penitential Mode in the Old English Harrowing of Hell
The Gospel of Nicodemus and its Descendants
Other Late-Medieval Versions of the Descent
The Sixteenth Century and its Legacy


[A]n excellent contribution to the presentation of Christianity, and especially of extra-biblical motifs in vernacular culture in the Middle Ages and beyond. An excellent bibliography concludes a very useful addition to the growing corpus of studies on the interface of theology and literature in the Middle Ages. MEDIAEVISTIK

Offers a valuable overview of the theme and its treatments in medieval literature and art. MODERN PHILOLOGY

A book that research libraries will find a worthwhile addition to their collections. SPECULUM

Will be of value to students of medieval Christianity, art and literary history, and those concerned with the growth of drama from liturgy to the mystery and miracle plays. FOLKLORE

Immensely informative and thought-provoking. [...] Tamburr's essays shed much light on the complex tradition of the Harrowing of Hell; they explore important parallels between literary and art treatments of the motif; they provide new perspectives on the motif's literary and dramatic elaborations; and they pursue the subject with a genuine curiosity and passion. Therefore, I do not hesitate to recommend them for every medievalist's library. JOURNAL OF ENGLISH AND GERMANIC PHILOLOGY

Should be acquired by university libraries and students of medieval literature and theology. FIFTEENTH-CENTURY STUDIES

Represents a worthy study of the evolution of the Harrowing of Hell narrative through medieval and early modern English art and literature. An excellent introduction to the subject, highlighting many of the narrative's most intriguing issues with competence and insight. MEDIUM AEVUM

A valuable resource for the tracing of sources for the study of the Harrowing of Hell in Medieval art and literature. A certain amount of previous knowledge is necessary, however, and the book is not a first introduction to the topic. It would, however, do well on the shelf of any scholar interested in any aspect of the Harrowing of Hell in Medieval England, be it a theologian, a cultural historian, a literary scholar, or an art historian. THE REVIEW OF ENGLISH STUDIES