Sacred heresies: the Harrowing of Hell in early modern English literature

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Christina Romanelli (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Michelle Dowd

Abstract: Sacred Heresies traces the English literary tradition of the Harrowing of Hell out of the Catholic Middle Ages, through the Protestant Renaissance, and into the proto-scientific Restoration period. I argue that Christ's theatrical descent into hell serves as source material for authors wishing to depict characters overcoming evil through confrontation with the devil or demonic figures. Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and Margaret Cavendish draw on the narratives associated with the Harrowing in order to represent (or question) the lawful or righteous use of magic to combat spiritual, social, and political enemies. The ultimate source for these characterizations and actions is the Jesus Christ of the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, a multi-faceted version of Christ who is rebel, magician, warrior, advocate, and kinfolk simultaneously. The early modern writers who discovered this Christ in their reading of texts like William Langland's Piers Plowman and their viewing of the vestiges of the cycle plays found a virtuous subject encountering and often debating with diabolical forces, acts that have previously denoted either witchcraft or exorcism. By offering the Harrowing Christ-figure as a third alternative to these codified subject positions, my project puts scholarship on religious change into conversation with investigations of witchcraft trials and proto-scientific discourse in a way that redefines how we understand magic in early modern England. Scholarship that connects magic and religion has focused almost exclusively on the negative aspects of the relationship. Stuart Clark observes that accusations of witchcraft were "endemic in the discourse of religious difference," and Genevieve Guenther notes that the instrumental aesthetics of conjuring on stage threatened to damn the audience for simply observing events. Given these deleterious associations, any desire to practice magic seems blatantly ludicrous. This study contributes an alternative model for the magical practitioner, a model powerful enough to overcome the damning effects of consorting with Lucifer himself--that of the Harrowing Christ. In the investigation of the motivations for laudable uses of magic in these literary texts, it became clear that magical practice provided a sense of human agency over supernatural events that responded to the lack of agency implied by new Protestant emphases on contemplation and predestination. If as Ian McAdam states, "Radical Protestant internalization of faith placed an almost unbearable burden of responsibility on the believer," modeling behavior on Christ's defeat of Satan countered this tendency by empowering the subject to more fully participate in his or her own salvation by confronting damnation directly. Reading the literary texts alongside Tudor and Stuart theological debates about Christ's descent into hell unearthed an unexpected element in the trajectory of the reinterpretations of the Harrowing of Hell. Whereas poets, playwrights, and prose writers were crafting characters based on the model of Christ, theologians were fashioning Christ himself for new contexts and audiences. For example, an image published with Adam Hill's 1592 The Defence of the Article: Christ descended into Hell portrays Christ as climbing out of a coffin onto a dragon and a skeleton in order to connect Christ with St George, the patron saint of England. By William Allen's 1697 sermon titled A Practical Improvement of the Articles of Christ's Descent into Hell, the fact that scientists have the ability to prove how "the Body of Man becomes that of another" through "successive Transmigration" serves as proof that the infinitely more powerful Christ is "a most intelligent Agent" who can "order and watch the Particles of a Humane Body" in order to raise the dead to everlasting life (D3v). These surprising interpretations of the third article--Christ as nationalistic hero or Christ as scientist extraordinaire--support the claim made by scholars like Dewey Wallace and Patrick Collinson that the English used contested theological positions to separate themselves from both the Catholics and the Puritans and construct a stable identity for the Anglican Church that contributed to the emerging sense of England as a nation-state.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2014
Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, Harrowing of Hell, Margaret Cavendish, Protestant Reformation, William Shakespeare
Jesus Christ $x Descent into hell
English literature $y Early modern, 1500-1700 $x History and criticism
Gospel of Nicodemus $x Criticism, interpretation, etc.

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