Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Harrowing of Hell in Medieval England

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Harrowing of Hell in Medieval England

Article excerpt

Karl Tamburr, The Harrowing of Hell in Medieval England (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2007). xi + 211 pp. ISBN 978-1-84384-117-3. £50.00.

In The Harrowing of Hell in Medieval England, Karl Tamburr looks at some of the typological and tropological elements of medieval Harrowing narratives from the Easter liturgy of the early Church to 'legacies' of the Reformation. His investigation leans quite heavily on previous literary criticism, regularly acknowledging J. A. MacCulloch's (now dated) The Harrowing of Hell (Edinburgh, 1930), the work of Zbigniew Izydorczyk, and other primary studies on the subject. Many chapters complement C. W. Marx's article ('The Gospel of Nicodemus in Old English and Middle English', in The Medieval 'Gospel of Nicodemus', ed. Zbigniew Izydorczyk (Tempe, Ariz., 1997)), elaborating shared motifs in treatments of the Harrowing in English literature and art. Tamburr is largely successful in his attempt to draw together major themes of the Harrowing narratives, contrasting, for example, the emphasis on Christus Victor in Old English treatments with the more 'providential view' adopted by later medieval writers and artists.

The study begins with a brief discussion of the early Church's views on the Harrowing, moving on to look at a late fourteenth-century play from the Abbey of Barking. The opening's relative lack of material focus is followed by a solid discussion of Christ as Warrior-King in Old English poetry. While many of the ideas raised are not necessarily new, Tamburr's discussion of the comitatus relationship of epic poetry and its place in depictions of the Harrowing is particularly intriguing.

The chapter that follows continues this analysis of narrative and typology, building on B. Burlin's ideas on Christ I (The Old English Advent (New Haven, Conn., 1968)) and carrying on to discuss Cynewulf's conflating of the Harrowing and the Ascension. Tamburr shows how the Harrowing came to be seen as a restoration of divine law in a providential view of humankind's relationship to God, suggesting that the role of the Passion was de-emphasized, allowing the Harrowing to show Christ as conqueror and protector while working to reverse the Fall. This notion contrasts with later depictions which draw inspiration from the Gospel of Nicodemus. …

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