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15.05.23, Rambaran-Olm, John the Baptist's Prayer

The Medieval Review

15.05.23, Rambaran-Olm, John the Baptist's Prayer

In her study and edition, Mary Rambaran-Olm offers a fresh look at the Old English poem traditionally known as The Descent into Hell, which she dubs John the Baptist's Prayer. She argues that renaming the poem would reflect its theme more accurately and defends it against charges of being muddled or an inferior treatment of the descent into hell. The book brings a good new edition and facing-page translation of the Old English poem together with a study and useful supporting materials on its religious and literary contexts.

The study precedes the edition, though readers unfamiliar with the poem should read the edition (or translation) first. In her brief introduction, Rambaran-Olm argues that The Descent into Hell has not been appreciated precisely because the title leads readers to expect a descent into hell or even harrowing of hell narrative. Instead, the descent gives occasion for John the Baptist to deliver a dramatic monologue on baptism and salvation. She briefly explains that she emphasizes sense over creating a diplomatic edition (though Appendix 4 provides a transcript as well).

Four chapters follow. The first offers an account of the paleography and codicology of the Exeter Book as a whole, referring often to the work of Bernard Muir and Patrick Conner. She reads the manuscript as the work of a careful anthologist who grouped poems thematically. The works early in the manuscript model a Christian way of life and spirituality; later ones focus on the soul and the next life. The Descent into Hell occupies a middle section treating Easter. The poem is not by Cynewulf, but perhaps connected with a school of Cynewulf or the Alfredian program. She dates the manuscript 965-1015 and the poem itself to the end of the ninth or first quarter of the tenth century.

The second chapter introduces the motif of the descensus or descent into hell. Though the Bible gives no explicit narrative of Christ's descent into hell and the subsequent harrowing, where he rescued souls from hell and took them to heaven before his resurrection, many scholars locate the origins of the motif in Ephesians 4:7-11. Rambaran-Olm offers a highly abbreviated survey of the development of the Jewish conception of the underworld, or sheol, into a hell that then became the Christian hell. Early Christians, she argued, used the descensus motif to offer believers hope for life after death. She then takes readers on a quick march through examples of five hundred years of early treatments of the descensus, supplemented by her Appendix 1, which offers an author, title, and a one-sentence summary for each work treating the descensus from Ignatius of Antioch in the first century to Theophylact of Bulgaria in the early twelfth. Rambaran-Olm here offers a valuable guide to anyone wishing to study the descensus, but she notes that much of the material seems not to have been known to the poet; it is not clear whether he even knew The Gospel of Nicodemus, a touchstone for most descensus literature.

The core of her study is the third chapter, "Literary Analysis" (53-103). Rambaran-Olm recapitulates the history of the poem's title and argues that The Harrowing of Hell (Thorpe) and The Descent into Hell (ASPR) are both misleading. The traditions of the descensus that she introduced in the last chapter stand in sharp relief against this poem's themes. Scholars naturally evaluate a text against its title and thus judge The Descent into Hell an inadequate descent narrative. If one approaches the poem expecting John the Baptist's prayer greeting Christ's entry into hell, it does not disappoint. Rambaran-Olm explicitly calls the poem John the Baptist's Prayer from this point forward. The chapter then treats the workings of time in the poem: it has been criticized for incoherent use of time, but Rambaran-Olm notes that two uses of on uhtan clearly signal that the women leave to visit the tomb concurrently with Christ's descent. Verb tenses consistently distinguish the poet's narration of the past from John the Baptist's speech in his own present. The poem is non-linear, reflecting divine time and drawing audiences into participation. The following section of the chapter treats the poem's blend of Germanic heroic ideals with Christian themes. While Christ's role is limited and static, John the Baptist emerges as a hero in armor symbolic of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In an odd turn of argument, Rambaran-Olm writes that Satan, by contrast, is revealed as a "disloyal retainer" so that audiences "would have a clear indication of which character to support and align themselves with" (76) and so that "the poet presents the audience with a solution to any confusion over one's allegiance" (77); she does not indicate why they might have been tempted to ally with Satan in the first place. The rest of the section finds surer footing as Rambaran-Olm responds to scholars who read the speech as split between John and Adam: she argues that John is Christ's kin and his retainer and that the speaker is called ord or "first" not as the first human being but as a military leader, and the most recently dead (thus closest to the gates of hell).

The remainder of the chapter links John the Baptist's Prayer with liturgy, sacrament, and drama. Rambaran-Olm reads the first third of the poem as corresponding to the Service of Light, the start of the Easter Vigil liturgy: this part shows Christ bringing light into hell and echoes portions of the quem quaeritis, which can be used as an antiphon at Easter Vigil. She argues that parts parallel the sequence of lections at the Vigil, especially the four antiphons in John's speech. More detailed support here would have strengthened the section: Rambaran-Olm summarizes the seven readings of Easter Vigil in a phrase each, more hinting at parallels than arguing them. Here and elsewhere in the book, she refers to the quem quaeritis trope and the vespere autem antiphon, but she never quotes the Latin texts so that readers can compare them to the Old English. The kind of detailed comparisons and contrasts that she makes in the next chapter would have strengthened the argument here. More convincingly, she notes that while not every element is liturgical, the poem particularly focuses on baptism, which dominates the Easter Vigil after the Service of Light. John the Baptist's Prayer invokes baptism both by fire and by water. Last, the chapter turns to drama. Rambaran-Olm argues that Anglo-Saxons drew on Roman theater and had a dramatic sensibility long before late medieval and early modern plays. John the Baptist's Prayer offers a dramatic monologue that invites the audience to participate in baptism and look ahead to salvation.

The fourth chapter compares and contrasts John the Baptist's Prayer with The Gospel of Nicodemus, Blickling Homily VII, Christ and Satan, Christ I and II, The Panther, Elene, Dream of the Rood, the manuscript illustration of the Harrowing of Hell in the Tiberius Psalter, and an ivory carving of the Baptism of Christ. She finds more differences than similarities between each of these and John the Baptist's Prayer (excepting the ivory), and she does not uncover any source relationships. Rambaran-Olm concludes that these various works show that the descensus theme allowed a wide range of interpretations, and that even with this range available within Anglo-Saxon culture, John the Baptist's Prayer stands out for the absence of many conventions and the most "pacific" (141) version of the descensus motif in Old English. Unlike most accounts, the poem does not show an exodus from hell; the audience needs to respond personally to complete the work. A brief afterword recounts the major arguments before the text and translation appear.

The text and translation are the highlight of the volume. Rambaran-Olm emends relatively lightly where the text is intact, but where it has been damaged, she offers conjectures for most gaps. Her commentary and Appendix 4 contain digital images of damaged lines and show how the letters she proposes could fill those lines. The apparatus at the foot of the page in the edition represents the manuscript clearly, and a transcript and images in Appendix 4 provide plenty of material for interested readers to delve further into the evidence. An eighteen-page commentary mostly treats textual problems, including emendations from earlier editions that she has chosen not to follow and why. It also treats sources, though relatively lightly; the second and third appendices offer scriptural parallels and other sources and analogues respectively. It would have been helpful to signal these two appendices at the start of the commentary and to refer to them more explicitly at times. It is difficult to flip among the text, commentary, Appendix 2, and Appendix 3 without knowing whether a particular line or sentence is covered in any or all of the three. The text is generally clean and well-established, but there are two small typographical errors: "us ic" in 31 for "usic," and "weordo" for "weorod" at 48. The translation is accurate and readable, and it is particularly helpful given that this text is not widely anthologized but may be of interest to many scholars. The volume contains a full glossary for the Old English text.

The book suffers a bit from lapses in editing. Most problems are minor, involving punctuation mistakes or awkward phrasing. Some errors appear in quotations and citations, however. In a few places, auto-correct seems to have turned Latin into English ("diabolic" for "diaboli" and "sun" for "sunt" on 39, for example), and scattered other errors appear in quotations. Sometimes line numbers cited do not exactly match lines quoted. In the commentary, one line of the poem is scanned, but the scansion marks have all been crammed to the left of the line in question instead of appearing above each syllable (166). Sometimes passages of her own text seem repetitive: her survey of the Exeter Book's contents on 58-59 partly repeats her own 14-17, and 59 n. 22 repeats an idea from the previous page. A note on page 86 refers readers to pages 84-91 and covers information given in the main text on the next page. Rambaran-Olm reiterates arguments for renaming the poem well after having made her point.

Scholarship on the poem and the Exeter Book is up-to-date and inclusive. Coverage is notably dated in two areas: citations on Jewish concepts of the underworld rely heavily on publications from 1885 and 1901; and the surveys of medieval drama cited are from 1933, 1965, and 1967. Trying to cover so many areas in the book means that parts are a little thin. However, the book offers an excellent starting point for people wishing to study the descensus and harrowing further in its thorough citations of patristic and early medieval works treating the topic.

John the Baptist's Prayer or The Descent into Hell from the Exeter Book: Text, Translation and Critical Study offers much of value. The study has a few stumbles, but it also gives insight into the workings of time in the poem, interpretation of individual passages, and the connections to the Easter Vigil. The book, and particularly the edition, should be consulted by anyone working on the poem. Rambaran-Olm's proposed new name for the poem fits it well, and she makes a strong case that John the Baptist's Prayer is a sophisticated poem that can still speak to readers now both as a piece of art and as a testimony to Anglo-Saxon culture.