The Book of Cerne Harrowing of Hell: A Translation

Harrowing of Hell in the Tiberius Psalter (London, British Library, Cotton Tiberius C.vi; c.1050), folio 14r.

This piece of dramatic liturgy retelling the Harrowing of Hell (in Latin) survives in the ninth-century Book of Cerne (Cambridge, University Library, Ll.1.10; 820×840, Mercia), on folios 98v–99v. This verse text is based on the Latin Pseudo-Augustine Sermo 160, with parts of the Roman Psalter added to form a type of catena of biblical material. A.B. Kuypers printed the text in his diplomatic transcription of the Book of Cerne, and David N. Dumville provided a critical edition, with notes on the text and its sources. This translation (based on Dumville’s edition) is, to my knowledge, the first full translation to appear in print [in my book Preaching Apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon England, 217-19.]. References in brackets are to sources in the Psalms. When biblical passages have been used as a source, I have generally followed the Douay-Rheims translation, with some modernizations for style.

This is the prayer of the innumerable crowd of saints

who were held in the captivity of hell.

With mournful voice and supplication they call to the Saviour,

saying, when he descends into hell:

You have come, Redeemer of the world;

you have come, you whom we longingly have hoped for daily;

you have come, you who the prophets have announced would be a light for us;

you have come, giving in living flesh forgiveness for the sins of the world.

Save the lost captives of hell:

Descend before us to hell;

do not abandon us when you return above!

You set the pillar of glory on the world;

set the sign of victory in hell!

Now, O Lord, let your mercy be upon us, just as we have hoped in you. [32:22]

For with you is the fountain of life [35:10]

and in your light we shall see light. [35:10]

Show us, O Lord, your mercy [84:8]

and grant us your salvation! [84:8]

Remember your congregation, which you created from the beginning; [73:2]

remember not our former iniquities; [78:8]

let your mercies speedily prevent us, for we are become exceedingly poor. [78:8]

Help us, O God, our Saviour, [78:9]

and for the honour of your name, O Lord, deliver us, [78:9]

and forgive us our sins for the sake of your name! [78:9]

But after the request and supplication of the innumerable captives is heard,

steadily all, by the decree of the Lord, the ancient just ones,

without any delay to the authority of the Lord Saviour for the loosened bonds,

grasping the knees of the Lord Saviour,

in humble supplication with inexpressible joy, crying:3

You have broken, O Lord, our bonds; [115:16; cf. 106:14]

we will sacrifice to you the sacrifice of praise, [115:17]

He has not dealt with us according to our sins [102:10]

nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. [102:10]

But Adam and Eve were not yet freed from the bonds.

Then Adam, with mournful and miserable voice, cried to the Lord, saying:4

Have mercy on me, O Lord, have mercy on me in your great mercy, [50:3]

and in the multitude of your tender mercies, blot out my iniquity, [50:3]

for to you only have I sinned and done evil before you. [50:6]

I have gone astray like a sheep. [118:176]

Loosen my bonds, because your hands have made me and formed me. [118:73]

You will not leave my soul in hell, [15:10]

but deal with me in mercy [118:124]

and bring me out of the bonds of this prison and the shadow of death. [106:14; cf. 141:8]

Then, the Lord showing mercy, Adam was loosed out of the bonds,

grasping the knees of Jesus Christ:

Bless the Lord, O my soul, [102:1]

and let all that is within me bless his holy name. [102:1]

Who forgives all my iniquities? [102:3]

Who heals all my weariness? [102:3]

Who redeems my life from destruction? [102:4]

Who satisfies my desire with good things? [102:5]

Yet Eve persists in weeping, saying:

You are just, O Lord, and your judgment is right [118:137]

for I deserve to suffer these things, [Gen. 42:21]

for I, when I was in honour, did not understand: [48:13]

I am compared to senseless beasts [48:13]

and am become like to them. [48:13]

But you, O Lord, do not remember the sins of my youth and my ignorance. [24:7]

Turn not the face of your mercy from me, [26:9]

and decline not in your wrath from your handmaiden. [26:9]

Further Reading

David N. Dumville, “Liturgical Drama and Panegyric Responsory from the Eighth Century? A Re-examination of the Origin and Contents of the Ninth-Century Section of the Book of Cerne,” Journal of Theological Studies 23 (1972): 374–406.

The Prayer Book of Aedeluald the Bishop Commonly Called the Book of Cerne, ed. A. B. Kuypers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1902), 196-98.

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