Harrowing Hell’s Halfacre: Langland’s Mediation of the ‘Descensus’ from the Gospel of Nicodemus
PPl invites investigation as an interpretative dialogue with prior texts, in which the poet mediates between disparate sources and the modes of interpretation and reception of his own time. The descensus of the Evangelium Nicodemi is transformed in B.18 in a way that shifts the narrational mode from an integrative dependence on textual authority to a dialogic allegory, while at the same time changing the focus from Christ’s power to his love of mankind. WL reinvents the harrowing of hell trope as an allegory of Christian revelation; his strategy is to shift the text’s mode of signification. The Vita transcends questions of justice or reason to turn the focus toward love; in the harrowing, the doctrine of the “devil’s right” (endorsed by Rightwiseness) is first endorsed by Christ (B.18.325-26), who claims to have purchased mankind’s souls; Christ then resorts to a discourse based on the justice of the “guiler beguiled”; then he radically subverts the privileged position of the law by introducing the concept of grace (18.359-62).