Piers Plowman


PASSUS XVIII (The Harrowing of Hell)


LINEN-LESS and wet-shod · went I forth after,
As a reckless fellow · that of no woe recks,
And went like a vagrant · all my life,
Till I waxed weary of the world · and wished to sleep again,
And leaned me about till Lent · and long time I slept;
And of Christ's passion and penance · that the people saved,
I rested and dreamed there, and snored fast · till ramis palmarum;
Of children and of gloria laus · greatly me dreamed,
And how hosanna to the organ · old folk sang.
One like to the Samaritan · and somewhat to Piers Plowman.
Bare-foot on an ass's back · boot-less came riding,
Without spurs or spear · lively he looked,
As is the way with a knight · that cometh to be dubbed,
To get him gilt spurs · or shoes slashed.
Then was Faith in a window · and cried `a! fili David!'
As doth a herald at arms · when the adventurous come to joust.
Old Jews of Jerusalem · for joy they sang,
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Then I asked of Faith · what all that affair meant,
And who should joust in Jerusalem · `Jesus,' he said,
`And fetch what the Fiend claimeth · Piers' fruit the Plowman.'
`Is Piers in this place?' quoth I · and he looked on me,
`This Jesus of his nobility · will joust in Piers' arms,
In his helm and in his hauberk · humana natura;
That Christ be not known here · for consummatus Deus,
In Piers' garment the Plowman · this pricker shall ride;
For no dint shall him hurt · as in deitate Patris.'
`Who shall joust with Jesus?' quoth I · `Jews or scribes?'
`Nay,' quoth He, `the foul Fiend · and falsehood and death.
Death saith he will undo · and down bring
All that liveth or looketh · in land or in water.
Life saith that he lies · and laith his life to pledge,
That for all that death can do · within three days,
He will go and fetch from the Fiend · Piers' fruit the Plowman,
Piers The Plowman, Passus XVIII, p. 168
And lay it where him liketh · and Lucifer bind,
And beat and down bring · sorrow and death for ever:
0 mors, ero mors tua!'
Then came Pilatus with much people · sedens pro tribunali,
To see how doughtily death should do · and judge the rights of both.
The Jews and the justices · against Jesus they were,
And all their court on him cried · crucifige sharp.
Then put forth a robber · before Pilate, and said,
`This Jesus at our Jews' temple · japed and despised,
To undo it on one day · and in three days after
Edify it anew · (here he stands that said it)
And yet make it as much · in all manner of points,
Both as long and as large · by height and by length.'
`Crucifige,' quoth a catchpole · `I warrant him a witch!'
`Tolle, tolle!' quoth another · and took of keen thorns,
And began of keen thorn · a garland to make,
And set it hard on his head · and said in malice,
`Ave, rabi!' quoth that rascal · and threw reeds at him,
Nailed him with three nails · naked on the rood,
And poison on a pole · they put up to his lips,
And bade him drink his death drink · his days were done.
`And if that thou powerful be · help now thyself,
If thou be Christ, and king's son · come down off the rood;
Then shall we believe that Life thee loveth · and will not let thee die!'
`Consummatum est,' quoth Christ · and began for to swoon
Piteously and pale · as a prisoner that dieth;
The lord of life and of light · then layed his eyes together.
The day for dread withdrew · and dark became the sun,
The veil shook and was cleft · and all the world quaked.
Dead men for that din · came out of deep graves,
And told why that tempest · so long time lasted.
`For a bitter battle' · the dead body said;
`Life and Death in this darkness · one undoes the other;
Shall no wight know truly · who shall have the mastery,
Ere Sunday about sun-rising' · and sank with that to earth.
Some said that he was God's son · that so fair died,
Vere filius Dei erat iste, etc.
And some said he was a witch · `it is good that one try,
Whether he be dead or not dead · down ere he be taken.'

Two thieves also · suffered death that time,
Upon a cross beside Christ · so was the common law.

Piers The Plowman, Passus XVIII, p. 169
A catchpole came forth · and cracked both their legs,
And their arms after · of each of those thieves.
But was no boy so bold · God's body to touch;
For he was knight and king's son · nature granted that time,
That no rascal was so hardy · to lay hand upon him.
But there came forth a knight · with a keen spear ground,
Called Longinus, as the story telleth · and long had lost his sight.
Before Pilate and the other people · in the place he stood;
Spite his many teeth · he was made that time
To take the spear in his hand · and joust with Jesus;
For all they were afraid · that waited on horse or stood,
To touch him or to handle him · or take him down off rood.
But this blind bachelor then · struck him through the heart;
The blood sprung down by the spear · and unbarred the knight's eyes.
Then fell the knight upon knees · and cried him mercy --
`Against my will it was, lord · to wound you so sore!'
He sighed and said · `sore it methinketh;
For the deed that I have done · deliver me to your grace;
Have on me pity, righteous Jesus!' · and right with that he wept.

Then began Faith fiercely · the false Jews to despise,
Called them caitives · accursed for ever,
For this foul villainy · `vengeance to you all!
To make the blind beat him bound · it was a knave's counsel.
Cursed caitiff · knighthood was it never
To ill treat a dead body · by day or by night.
The prize yet hath he gained · for all his great wound.
For your champion of chivalry · chief knight of you all,
Yields him defeated in the running · right to Jesus' will.
For be this darkness done · his death will be avenged,
And ye, lordlings, have lost · for Life shall have the mastery.
And your franchise, that free · was fallen in thraldom,
And ye, churls, and your children · succeed shall ye never,
Nor have lordship in land · nor no land till,
But all barren be · and usury use,
Which is a life that our Lord · in all laws curseth.
Now your good days are done · as Daniel prophesied,
When Christ came, of their kingdom · the crown should fall;

Cum veniat sanctus sanctum, cessabit unctio vestra.'
What with fear of this marvel · and of the false Jews,
I withdrew me in that darkness to descendit ad inferna.
And there I saw sothly · secundum scripturas,,
Piers The Plowman, Passus XVIII, p. 170
Out of the west · a wench, as me thought,
Came walking in the way · to Hell-ward she looked.
Mercy was called that maid · a meek thing withal,
A full benign lady · and gentle of speech.
Her sister, as it seemed · came softly walking,
Even out of the east · and westward she looked.
A full comely creature · Truth she was called,
For the virtue that her followed · afraid was she never.
When these maidens met · Mercy and Truth,
Each asked the other · of this great wonder,
Of the din and of the darkness · and how the day began to dawn,
And what a light and a brightness · lay before Hell.
`I wonder at these happenings · in faith,' said Truth,
`And am seeking to discover · what this marvel meaneth.'
`Have no wonder,' quoth Mercy · `joy it betokeneth.
A maiden called Mary · and mother without knowledge
Of any human creature · conceived through speech
And grace of the Holy Ghost · waxed great with child;
Without stain · into this world she brought him;
And that my tale be true · I take God to witness.
Since this child was born · be thirty winters passed;
Who died and death suffered · this day about midday.
And that is cause of this eclipse · that closeth now the sun,
In meaning that man shall · from darkness be drawn,
The while this light and this brightness · shall Lucifer blind.
For patriarchs and prophets · have preached hereof often,
That man shall man save · through a maiden's help,
And what was lost through tree · tree shall it win,
And what death down brought · death shall relieve.'
`What thou tellest,' quoth Truth · `is but a tale of waltrot
For Adam and Eve · and Abraham with others,
Patriarchs and prophets · that in pain lie,
Believe thou never that yon light · them aloft will bring,
Nor have them out of Hell · hold thy tongue, Mercy!
It is but a trifle that thou tellest · I, Truth, know the soth.
For that is once in Hell · out cometh he never;
Job the prophet, patriarch · reproveth thy sayings,
Quia in inferno nulla est redemptio.'
Then Mercy full mildly · mouthed these words,
Through experience,' quoth she · `I hope they shall be saved.
For venom undoes venom · and that I prove by reason.
Piers The Plowman, Passus XVIII, p. 171
For of all venoms · foulest is the scorpion,
May no medicine help · the place where he stingeth,
Till he be dead and placed thereon · the evil he destroyeth,
The first venom · through venom of himself.
So shall this death undo · I dare my life lay,
All that Death undid first · through the devil's enticing:
And right as through guile · man was beguiled,
So shall grace that began · make a good sleight;
Ars ut artem falleret.'
`Now stay we,' said Truth · `I see, as methinketh,
Out of the cold of the north · not full far hence,
Righteousness come running · rest we the while;
For she knows more than we · she was ere we both.'
`That is soth,' said Mercy · `and I see here by south,
Where Peace cometh playing · in patience clothed;
Love hath coveted her long · believe I none other
But he sent her some letter · what this light meaneth,
That is over Hell thus · she us shall tell.'

When Peace, in patience clothed · approached near them twain,
Righteousness her reverenced · for her rich clothing,
And prayed Peace to tell her · to what place she went,
And in her gay garments · whom greet she thought?
`My will is to wend,' quoth she · I and welcome them all,
That many day I might not see · for murkyness of sin.
Adam and Eve · and others more in Hell,
Moses and many more · mercy shall have;
And I shall dance thereto · do thou so, sister!
For Jesus jousted well · joy beginneth to dawn;

Ad vesperum demorabitur fletus, et ad matutinum laetitia.
Love, that is my lover · such letters me sent,
That Mercy, my sister, and I · mankind should save;
And that God hath forgiven · and granted me, Peace, and Mercy,
To be man's surety · for evermore after.
Lo! here the patent!' quoth Peace · `in pace in idipsum --
And that this deed shall endure · dormiam et requiescam.'

`What, ravest thou?' quoth Righteousness · `or thou art right drunk!
I Believest thou that yonder light · unlock might Hell,
And save man's soul? · sister, ween it never!
At the beginning, God · gave the judgement himself,
That Adam and Eve · and all that them followed
Should die down right · and dwell in pain after,

Piers The Plowman, Passus XVIII, p. 172
If that they touched a tree · and the fruit ate.
Adam afterwards · against his warning,
Ate of that fruit · and forsook, as it were,
The love of our Lord · and his lore both,
And followed what the fiend taught · and his fellow's will,
Against reason, I, Righteousness · record thus with truth,
That their punishment be perpetual · and no prayer them help.
Therefore let them chew as they chose · and chide we not, sisters,
For it is helpless harm · the bite that they took.'

`And I shall prove,' quoth Peace · `their pain must have an end,
And woe into well · must wend at last;
For had they wist of no woe · well had they not known.
For no wight knows what well is · that never woe suffered,
Nor what is called hunger · that had never lack.
If no night were · no man, as I believe,
Would know clearly · what day means;
Would never right rich man · that liveth in rest and ease
Know what woe is · except for natural death.
So God that began all · of his good will
Became man of a maid · mankind to save,
And suffered himself to be sold · to see the sorrow of dying,
The which un-knitteth all care · and commencing is of rest.
For till modicum meet with us · I may it well avow,
Knows no wight, as I ween · what enough means.

`Therefore God of his goodness · the first man Adam,
Set him in solace · and in sovereign mirth;
And then he suffered him sin · sorrow to feel,
To see what well was · truly to know it.
And after, God ventured himself · and took Adam's nature,
To know what he hath suffered · in three sundry places,
Both in Heaven, and in earth · and now to Hell he thinketh,
To know what all woe is · that knew of all joy.
So it shall fare with these folk · their folly and their sin,
Shall teach them what anguish is · and bliss without end.
Knows no wight what war is · where that peace reigneth,
Nor what is indeed well · till "well-away" him teach.'

Then was there a wight · with two broad eyes,
Book was called the beau-père · a bold man of speech.
`By God's body,' quoth this Book · 'I will bear witness,
That when this child was born · there blazed a star,

Piers The Plowman, Passus XVIII, p. 173
That all the wise of this world · in one thought accorded,
That such a child was born · in Bethlehem city,
That man's soul should save · and sin destroy.
And all the elements,' quoth the Book · `hereof bear witness,
That he was God that all wrought · the welkin first showed;
Those that were in heaven · took stella cometa,
And kindled her as a torch · to reverence his birth;
And light followed the Lord · into the low earth.
The water witnessed that he was God · for he went on it;
Peter the apostle · perceived his going,
And as he went on the water · well him knew, and said,
Jube me venire ad te super aquas.
And lo! how the sun began to lock · her light in herself,
When she saw him suffer · who sun and sea made!
The earth for heaviness · that he would suffer,
Quaked as a live thing · and all crushed the rock!
Lo! Hell might not hold · but opened when God suffered,
And let out Simeon's sons · to see him hang on rood.
And now shall Lucifer believe it · though him loth think;
For Gigas the giant · with a weapon made
To break and to beat down · those that be against Jesus.
And I, Book, will be burnt · but Jesus rise to live,
In all the might of man · and his mother gladden,
And comfort all his kin · and out of care bring,
And all the Jews' joy · dissolve and disjoin;
And unless they reverence his rood · and his resurrection,
And believe on a new law · be lost life and soul.'

`Abide we,' said Truth · `I hear and see both,
How a spirit speaketh to hell · and bids unbar the gates;

Attollite portas, etc.'
A voice loud in that light · to Lucifer crieth,
`Princes of this place · unbolt and unlock!
For here cometh with crown · that king is of glory.
Then sighed Satan · and said to them all,
`Such a light, against our leave · Lazarus it fetched away;
Care anJ confusion · is come to us all.
If this king come in · mankind will he fetch,
And lead it where he liketh · and easily me bind.
Patriarchs and prophets · have talked hereof long,
That such a lord and a light · should lead them all hence.'

`Listen,' quoth Lucifer · `for I this lord know,

Piers The Plowman, Passus XVIII, p. 174
Both this lord and this light · it is long ago I knew him.
May no death him harm · nor no devil's cunning,
And where he will, is his way · but ware him of the perils,
If he reave me of my right · he robbeth me by mastery.
For by right and by reason · those people that be here
Body and soul be mine · both good and ill.
For himself said · that sire is of heaven,
If Adam eat the apple · all should die,
And dwell with us devils · this threat he made;
And he that truth is · said these words;
And since I have been in possession · seven hundred winters,
I believe that law will not · let him in the least.'
`That is soth,' said Satan · `but I me sore dread,
For thou gained them with guile · and his garden broke,
And in semblance of a serpent · sat on the apple-tree,
And egged them on to eat · Eve by herself,
And told her a tale · of treason were the words;
And so thou haddest them out · and hither at last.
It is not easily held · where guile is the root.'
`For God will not be beguiled' · quoth Goblin, `nor tricked;
We have no true title to them · for through treason were they damned.
`Certes, I dread me,' quoth the Devil · `lest truth will them fetch.
This thirty winter, as I ween · hath he gone and preached;
I have assailed him with sin · and at some time asked
Whether he were God or God's son? · he gave me short answer.
And thus he walked forth · this two and thirty winter,
And when I saw it was so · sleeping, I went
To warn Pilate's wife · what sort of man was Jesus;
For Jews hated him · and have done him to death.
I would have lengthened his life · for I believed, if he died,
That his soul would suffer · no sin in his sight.
For the body, while it on bones went · about was ever
To save men from sin · if they themselves would.
And now I see where a soul · cometh hitherward sailing
With glory and with great light · God it is, I know well.
I advise we flee,' quoth he · `fast all hence;
For us were better not be · than abide his sight.
For thy lies, Lucifer · lost is all our prey.
First through thee we fell · from heaven so high;
Because we believed thy lies · we leapt out all with thee,
And now for thy last lie · lost we have Adam,
Piers The Plowman, Passus XVIII, p. 175
And all our lordship, I believe · on land and on water;
Nunc princeps hujus mundi ejicietur foras.'
Again the light bade unlock · and Lucifer answered,
`What lord art thou?' quoth Lucifer · `quis est iste ?'
`Rex gloriae' · the light soon said,
`And lord of might and of main · and all manner of virtues;
dominus virtutum;
Dukes of this dim place · anon undo these gates.
That Christ may come in · the king's son of heaven.'
And with that breath Hell broke · and Belial's bars,
Inspite of wight or ward · wide open the gates.
Patriarchs and prophets · populus in tenebris,
Sang Saint John's song · `ecce agnus Dei.'
Lucifer might not look so light him blinded;
And those that our Lord loved · into his light he took,
And said to Satan, `lo! here · my soul to amend
For all sinful souls · to save those that be worthy.
Mine they be and of me · I may the better them claim.
Although reason record · and right of myself,
That if they eat the apple · all should die,
I promised them not here · Hell for ever.
For the deed that they did · thy deceit it made;
With guile thou them got · against all reason.
For in my palace, paradise · in person of an adder,
Falsely thou fetchest thence · thing that I loved.
Thus like a lizard · with a lady's visage,
Like a thief thou me robbest · the old law granteth,
That beguilers be beguiled · and that is good reason;
Dentem pro dente, et oculum pro oculo.
Ergo, soul shall soul quit · and sin drive out sin,
And all that man hath misdone · I, man, will amend.
Member for member · by the old law made amends,
And life for life also · and by that law I claim it,
Adam and all his issue · at my will hereafter.
And what death in them undid · my death shall relieve,
And both quicken and purchase · what was destroyed through sin;
And that grace guile destroy · good faith it asketh.
So believe it not, Lucifer · that against the law I fetch them,
But by right and by reason · ransom here my lieges:
Non veni solvere legem, sed adimplere.
Thou fetchest mine from my place · against all reason,
Piers The Plowman, Passus XVIII, p. 176
Falsely and feloniously · good faith me it taught,
To recover them through ransom · and by no reason else,
So what with guile thou got · through grace it is won.
Thou, Lucifer, in likeness · of a wicked adder,
Got by guile · those that God loved;
And I, in likeness of a man · that lord am of Heaven,
Graciously thy guile have requited · go guile against guile!
And as Adam and all · through a tree died,
Adam and all through a tree · shall turn again to life;
And guile is beguiled · and in his guile fallen:
Et cecidit infoveam quam fecit.
Now beginneth thy guile · against thee to turn,
And my grace to grow · ever greater and wider.
The bitterness that thou hast brewed · enjoy it thyself,
That art doctor of death · drink what thou madest!
`For I, that am lord of life · love is my drink,
And for that drink today · I died upon earth.
I fought so, I thirst yet · for man's soul's sake;
May no drink me moist · nor my thirst slake,
Till the vintage fall · in the vale of Jehoshaphat,
And I drink right ripe must · resurrectio mortuorum,
And then shall I come as a king · crowned with angels,
And have out of Hell · all men's souls.

`Fiends and fiendkins · before me shall stand,
And be at my bidding · wheresoere me liketh.
And to be merciful to man · then my nature asketh;
For we be bretheren of blood · but not in baptism all.
But all that be my whole bretheren · in blood and in baptism,
Shall not be damned to the death · that is without end;

Tibi soli peccavi, etc.
It is not the custom on earth · to hang a felon
More than once · though he were a traitor.
And if the king of that kingdom · come in that time,
Where the felon suffer should · death or otherwise,
Law wills, he give him life · if he looked on him.
And 1, that am king of kings · shall come in such a time,
Where judgement to the death · damneth all wicked;
And if law wills I look on them · it lieth in my grace,
Whether they die or die not · for what they did ill.
Be it anything bought · the boldness of their sins,
Piers The Plowman, Passus XVIII, p. 177
I may do mercy through righteousness · and all my words true.
And though holy writ wills that I be avenged · on them that did ill,
Nullum malum impunitum, etc.
They shall be cleansed clearly · and washed of their sins
In my prison Purgatory · till parce is called,
And my mercy shall be showed · to many of my bretheren.
For blood may suffer blood · both hungry and a'cold,
But blood may not see blood · bleed, without pity.
Audivi arcana verba, quae non licet homini loqui.
But my righteousness and right · shall rule all Hell,
And mercy all mankind · before me in Heaven.
For I were an unkind king · unless I my kindred helped,
And above all at such need · when help needs must come;
Non intres in judicium cum servo tuo, Domine.
Thus by law,' quoth our Lord · `lead I will from hence
Those that me loved · and believed in my coming.
And for thy lying, Lucifer · that thou told to Eve,
Thou shalt abide it bitterly' · and bound him with chains.
Ashtoreth and all the rout · hid them in corners,
They dared not look on our Lord · the boldest of them all,
But let him lead forth what he liked · and allowed him what he pleased.

Many hundreds of angels · harped and sung,

Culpat caro, purgat caro; regnat Deus Dei caro.
Then piped Peace · of poesy a note,
`Clarior est solito post maxima nebula Phoebus,
Post inimicitias clarior est et amor.
After sharp showers,' quoth Peace · `most glorious is the sun;
Is no weather warmer · than after watery clouds.
Nor no love dearer · nor dearer friends,
Than after war and woe · when Love and Peace be masters.
Was never war in this world · nor wickedness so keen,
That Love, if he pleased · could not bring to laughter,
And Peace through patience · all perils stopped.'
`Truce,' quoth Truth · `thou tellest us soth, by Jesus.
Clip we in covenant · and each of us kiss the other!'
`And let no people,' quoth Peace · `perceive that we chid?
For impossible is no thing · to him that is almighty.'
`Thou sayest soth,' said Righteousness · and reverently her kissed,
Peace, and Peace her · per saecula saeculorum.
Misericordia et veritas obviaverunt sibi; justitia et pax osculatae sunt.
Truth trumpeted then, and sang · `Te Deum laudamus';
Piers The Plowman, Passus XVIII, p. 178
And then played Love the lute · in a loud note,
Ecce quam banum et jocundum, etc.
Till the day dawned · these damsels danced,
That men rang in the resurrection · and right with that I waked,
And called Kit my wife · and Calot my daughter--
'Arise and reverence · God's resurrection,
And creep to the cross on knees · and kiss it for a jewel
For God's blessed body · it bore for our saving,
And it frighteneth the fiend · for such is the might,
May no grisly ghost · glide near its shadow!'

  This is a part of the the section of Piers Plowman (Passus VIII to the end) called The Vision of Do-Well, Do Better, Do Best, which recounts the dreamer's search for Truth. For the rest see the printed edition: William Langland, The Book Concerning Piers Plowman, tr. Donald and Rachel Attwater, ed.Rachel Attwater (Everyman, 1957) from which this excerpt is taken, with permission of the publishers.

  Back to Passus VII | Back to Langland Note


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