1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Harrowing of Hell

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HARROWING OF HELL, an English poem in dialogue, dating from the end of the 13th century. It is written in the East Midland dialect, and is generally cited as the earliest dramatic work of any kind preserved in the language, though it was in reality probably intended for recitation rather than performance; It is closely allied to the kind of poem known as a débat, and the opening words—“Alle herkneth to me nou A strif wille I tellen ou Of Jesu and of Satan”—seem to indicate that the piece was delivered by a single performer. The subject—the descent of Christ into Hades to succour the souls of the just, as related in the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus—is introduced in a kind of prologue; then follows the dispute between “Dominus” and “Satan” at the gate of Hell; the gatekeeper runs away, and the just are set free, while Adam, Eve, Habraham, David, Johannes and Moyses do homage to the deliverer. The poem ends with a short prayer: “God, for his moder loue Let ous never thider come.” Metrically, the poem is characterized by frequent alliteration imposed upon the rhymed octosyllabic couplet:—

Welcome, louerd, god of londe
Godes sone and godes sonde (ii. 149-150).

The piece is obviously connected with the Easter cycle of liturgical drama, and the subject is treated in the York and Townley plays.

MSS. are: Brit. Mus., Harl. MS. 2253; Edinburgh, Auchinleck

MS., W 41; Oxford, Bodleian, Digby 86. It was privately printed by J. P. Collier and by J. O. Halliwell, but is available in Appendix III. of A. W. Pollard’s English Miracle Plays . . . (4th ed., 1904) K. Böddeker, Altengl. Dichtungen des MS. Harl. 2253 (Berlin, 1878); and E. Mall, The Harrowing of Hell (Breslau, 1871). See also E. K.

Chambers, The Medieval Stage (2 vols., 1903).