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John the Baptist's Prayer ["The Descent into Hell"] from the Exeter Book

John the Baptist's Prayer ["The Descent into Hell"] from the Exeter Book: Text, Translation and Critical Study

M. R. Rambaran-Olm
Volume: 21
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 256
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt3fgm55
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  • Book Info
    John the Baptist's Prayer ["The Descent into Hell"] from the Exeter Book
    Book Description:

    The Old English poem known popularly as the "Descent into Hell", found on folios 119v to 121v of the Exeter Book, has to date received little critical attention, perhaps owing to various contextual problems and lacunae on the leaves that contain it. This first full-length study offers a full account of the poem, together with an edition of the text and facing translation. It aims to resolve some of the poem's vexing issues and provides a variety of possible interpretations of the poem. The in-depth literary analysis seeks to enrich modern scholarly perceptions of the poem, suggest a more appropriate title, and contribute to continued scholarly discussion and analysis ofthe Exeter Book and its compilation. It provides a guide towards understanding the poem's main theme, presents the text in light of its position in ecclesiastical history, and sheds fresh light into its place and significance within the corpus of Old English poetry. M.R. Rambaran-Olm received her PhD from the University of Glasgow.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-200-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-x)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    The purpose of this edition is to produce a new interpretation of the Exeter Book poem currently entitledThe Descent into Hell. It is a poem that has been both neglected and misinterpreted over the centuries, and hence a fresh reading of the poem is long overdue. My study focuses extensively on the poem’s content, meaning and the methods by which the main theme is conveyed. At the heart of this edition is a change in the poem’s current title that, in my view, better reflects its central theme. However, in order to interpret the poem it is essential to...

  7. 1 Palaeography, Codicology and Language
    (pp. 11-30)

    The Exeter Book, also known as manuscript 3501 in the Library of the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral in Exeter, contains the only extant text ofThe Descent into HellorJohn the Baptist’s Prayer. Dating of the manuscript has not gone without controversy, since it has been difficult to date the specific poetic works within the manuscript.¹ Despite this dating controversy the manuscript is generally attributed to the latter half of the tenth century, and codicological and literary evidence suggests that the entire manuscript was both designed and copiedc.965–75. The Exeter Book may very well...

  8. 2 The Descensus Motif
    (pp. 31-52)

    The concept of Christ’s Descent into the Underworld was moulded into the framework of Christian teaching and thought early in ecclesiastical history. Although the doctrine of thedescensusseems to have always been a complicated concept, it can be said that by the Anglo-Saxon period thedescensushad not only secured its position into Christian doctrine, but had etched its way into the popular imagination, commonly depicted in art, poetry, sermons and even drama. A brief analysis of the origins of this belief will aid our understanding of its significance in popular Anglo-Saxon consciousness.¹

    Although many scholars and theologians claim...

  9. 3 Literary Analysis
    (pp. 53-103)

    AlthoughJohn the Baptist’s Prayeroccupies only 137 lines of alliterative verse, the content within boasts of a richly layered work of literary skill. The aim of this chapter is to investigate the poem within the context of specific themes that will enhance our understanding of the poem’s main theme whilst also facilitating an appreciation of the poet’s resourcefulness, imaginative power and commitment to his audience.

    The poem has generally been known asThe Descent into Hellever since late commentators changed it from the previous English titleThe Harrowing of Hell.¹ There is of course no title provided in...

  10. 4 Selected Comparative Studies and Analogous Literature
    (pp. 104-141)

    There seems nothing peculiar about an Anglo-Saxon poet writing about the theme of thedescensus, since the motif was so popular during the period. Certainly narratives of thedescensuscould conjure up images of liberation, salvation and judgement, and in many instances within the corpus of Old English poetry, writers exercised literary passion to convey what was evidently a popular narrative. Most often, as this chapter examines, thedescensusmotif was employed to communicate the details of Christ’s Passion, the salvation that comes through Him and His victory over Satan. This cosmic struggle between good and evil which had its...

  11. Afterword
    (pp. 142-144)

    Central to this edition was the need to rectify misinterpretations of the main theme inJohn the Baptist’s Prayerand to question whether a name change might facilitate readings to support the poem’s central focus on baptism. I have demonstrated that at its coreJohn the Baptist’s Prayeris not a poem about Christ’s Descent; rather, the main theme is John the Baptist’s message of redemption and salvation through baptism. For today’s readers titles have become more than labels and they do often function as guides to assist in establishing the theme of a text. The previous titleThe Descent...

  12. JOHN THE BAPTIST’S PRAYER: Text and Translation
    (pp. 145-160)

    In the early morning the noble women began

    to prepare themselves for the journey; the council of men knew

    the prince’s body had been encased in an earth-house.

    Those desolate women wished to mourn with weeping,

    to bewail with lamentation, alone for a while,

    the death of the prince. The grave was grown chill,

    it was a hard journey hence. Dauntless were the heroes,

    that they found at the quiet tomb.

    In the daybreak, grieving Mary, she went

    [and] she summoned the other nobleman’s daughter with her.

    The sorrowful two sought God’s victorious son

    alone in that earth-house where they...

  13. Commentary
    (pp. 161-178)

    I him] Some early critics foundhimtroublesome in context with the rest of the line owing to its usual translation as a masculine pronoun, although in this case the subject is feminine plural. To explain the pronoun’s case in the text, Cramer (1897), p. 159, proposes the word, while Cosijn (1898), p. 127, suggestshīe.ASPRIII, p. 356, suggests thathimmay very well have been the poet’s intended word. Becausehimmay simply refer to ‘themselves’, that is the ‘women’ at the beginning of the poem, consequently I have retainedhimas it makes sense in...

  14. Appendix 1. The Doctrine of the Descensus according to Post-Apostolic and Medieval Commentators from the First Century to the End of the Eleventh Century
    (pp. 179-196)
  15. Appendix 2. Scriptural References
    (pp. 197-199)
  16. Appendix 3. Other Sources and Analogues
    (pp. 200-201)
  17. Appendix 4. Transcription and Images of fol. 120r
    (pp. 202-210)
  18. Glossary
    (pp. 211-224)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 225-242)
  20. Index
    (pp. 243-250)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 251-253)