John Warrick

title.none: Tamburr, Harrowing of Hell (John Warrick)

identifier.other: baj9928.0805.009 08.05.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John Warrick, University of Birmingham,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Tamburr, Karl. The Harrowing of Hell in Medieval England. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 2007. Pp. xii, 211. $85.00 (hb) ISBN-13: 978-1-84384-117-3, ISBN-10: 1-84384-117-7 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.05.09

Tamburr, Karl. The Harrowing of Hell in Medieval England. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 2007. Pp. xii, 211. $85.00 (hb) ISBN-13: 978-1-84384-117-3, ISBN-10: 1-84384-117-7 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

John Warrick
University of Birmingham

The Harrowing of Hell refers to the period of three days between Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, during which, according to apocryphal lore, he descended to Hell, debated with infernal adversaries, and liberated Old Testament prophets known as the ancient just from Limbo Patrum's prison-house. The events of the Harrowing and its treatment within specialized fields have in recent decades earned an increasing presence in printed scholarship. Medievalists including Zbigniew Izydorczyk and C.W. Marx have traced the Harrowing's apocryphal history and touched upon its theological role in the period's redemption literature. Glynne Wickham, Paul Dean, and Beatrice Groves have independently noted its dramaturgical presence in Shakespeare, and Christopher Bond lately revisited its appearance in Spenser's Faerie Queene.

Karl Tamburr's book, The Harrowing of Hell in Medieval England, examines the Harrowing thematically, through broad narrative developments in Old and Middle English literary history. Although the author is quick to point out that his work is not comprehensive, the book's great strength is its thorough treatment of the Harrowing across finite categories of scholarship, and as evidenced by analyses of liturgy, homilies, redemption and devotional literatures, cyclic and Passion dramas, iconographical histories, and the apocrypha. Tamburr's approach involves the heavy deployment of typology, and he is careful to document the connective threads among Harrowings from distinct media. Whereas at points the book's wide scope and extensive materials can confuse, it should prove of value to any researcher interested in the cultural and theological history of the medieval Passion sequence generally and the Harrowing specifically.

As a matter of brief introduction, Chapter 1 provides a description of pre-Christian descents to the underworld in texts such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey before embarking on the Harrowing's credal history. The chapter, however, is devoted to the Harrowing's liturgical claim to seasonal Paschal celebrations, and three associated officia are emphasized in the attollite portas, the lighting of the Paschal candle, and baptism. The chapter concludes with the retelling of a 14th century liturgical drama from Barking, administered by the abbess Katherine of Sutton. These officia and the drama often focus on different aspects of Christian history such as Christ's entry into Jerusalem and the Exodus, as well as the more spiritual rite of exorcism, but they are all bound together in symbolisms primary to the Harrowing including the liturgical manipulation of light and darkness and baptismal immersion into waters associated with death and rebirth. As the chapter's emphasis is liturgical, the events described are formally connected in the communal participation of medieval congregants with a universal Christian history.

Chapter 2 refers to a sculptural relief-at one point used as a late Anglo-Saxon coffin lid-from Bristol Cathedral as illustrative of the Harrowing's compositional type in medieval iconography. Such iconography often focuses upon two themes of the Descent in military victory and deliverance, and Tamburr follows these themes while establishing the theological and historical developments that comprise a rather stable visual arrangement for Christ's defeat of Hell and liberation of the faithful. Although the parallels are not always consistent, Tamburr convincingly argues for the typological conflation of the Harrowing with figures who act in imitatio Christi like Samson and David in battle with the lion. It is through this typological conflation that the Harrowing visually informs a number of technically unrelated Biblical events. Analysis departs the confines of specifically English iconography by visiting a major site of influence in late Roman coins that display emperors with upraised staffs literally tromping vanquished enemies, much like Christ bearing the vexillum regis while treading upon devils at Hell's gate. This militaristic imagery, it is argued, found willing reception in Anglo-Saxon England where narratives of warrior kings and their faithful retainers abounded; in turn, these combined iconographical strains eventually bore upon literary imagery and narrative structures in such works as The Dream of the Rood and Beowulf.

Chapter 3 hinges on the fluid categories of cosmic, historical, and particularly individual "time" in Anglo-Saxon England. The Harrowing provides a pivotal point of contact between old and new covenants because it fulfils promises of redemption prefigured in the events of the prophets. While the Harrowing is often considered the liberating moment for the Church en masse--including past, present, and future congregants--Anglo Saxon poets and homilists showed an affinity for applying the Harrowing to individual penitential modes. This was done, Tamburr contends, through parallel conflation with stories of the Creation, Incarnation, Ascension, and Judgment in works such as the Book of Cerne, Christ II, and Christ and Satan. Although the Harrowing is not the major topic in all of these works, parallel treatments of the literary themes of "descent" and "light and darkness" suggest that the Harrowing pervaded the Anglo-Saxon imagination. This affinity was consecutively manipulated to emphasize the moral and spiritual role of the individual in providential history, offering a model for penitential engagement.

While the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus is not the sole originator for every medieval Harrowing, its profound influence upon the Descent's thematic development is the main concern of Chapter 4. In contrast to the iconography's focus upon the divine and militaristic Christ, the Gospel of Nicodemus promotes Jesus in his dual nature as both god and man, making the story particularly adaptable to dramatic treatment. Tamburr mentions that occasional texts like the Cursor Mundi faithfully translate Nicodemus, but that many others are notable for their selective departures. Perhaps also instigated by Anselm of Canterbury's Cur deus homo, the period's fundamental shift of emphasis to the humanity and suffering of Christ may be located in the pseudo-dramatic Middle English Harrowing of Hell (MS BL Harley 2253), the directly theatrical cyclic dramas, and in Piers Plowman's integration of liturgical and apocryphal sources. Tamburr follows the departures from Nicodemus in a number of documents, placing particular emphasis on treatments of Christ's disputatio with the devils concerning his hidden godhead.

The book concludes with a series of inquiries into late medieval transformations of the Descent story before accounting for its eventual decline upon England's Reformation. Of the more interesting studies here is Tamburr's connection of the Harrowing with exorcism in the Digby play of Mary Magdalene and his study of Julian of Norwich's feminization of Christ as a mother-figure who nourishes the Church with her shed blood. These treatments particularly emphasize the Harrowing's centrality and adaptability in multiple sequences not traditionally associated with Christ's descent to Hell. Although the English Protestant Church formally accorded with Catholic dogma in the broad acceptance of the Harrowing, Luther and Calvin held widely divergent opinions on the topic. Tamburr closes his study by tracing the Descent's theological developments in the sixteenth century, showing how both Protestants and Catholics alike eventually de-emphasized the popular, but apocryphal, theme. This did not mean, however, that the Harrowing was immediately excised from early modern literature, and Edmund Spenser, identifying its political potential, combined the Harrowing with elements of chivalric romance in The Faerie Queene to celebrate national Protestantism against Roman Catholicism.

Tamburr's focus on medieval England is appropriately tempered with comparative analysis of the Harrowing's development in continental Europe. However, there are moments at which continental ephemera are perhaps highlighted at the cost of uniquely English contexts. For instance, the seasonal lighting of the Paschal candle is presented in a conflated account of multiple ceremonies, beginning at the time of Augustine. In England specifically, the officium known as the "Lighting of the New Fire" involved a staff that was crested with the representation of a serpent's head--the Christological New Fire was placed within this serpent's mouth before being processed to the Paschal candle. It is this ceremony, as described in the Regularis Concordia and given visual form in a later edition of the Sarum Missal, and not the Exsultet or the Paschal candle alone, that more directly inclines to the event of the Harrowing in English liturgical practice. As well, for instance, emphasis upon the iconographical influence of Roman coins circumvents applicable study of Scandinavian contributions in Anglo-Saxon England.

These small points notwithstanding, Tamburr's study effectively traces the Harrowing of Hell's narrative development from Anglo-Saxon to Reformation England. I suspect that some readers might prefer inquiries of more limited scope, but this approach would in no way accurately convey the extensive impact of the Harrowing theme upon the period's literature, liturgy, and art. As well, Tamburr's responsible use of typological method should be noted, and his work offers an excellent case study on the narrative strategies employed by medieval writers and theologians.