Hell before Purgatory: An Anglo-Saxon Poem on Life after Death

Our blog on 10th August (https://worcestercathedrallibrary.wordpress.com/2015/08/10/early-english-poetry-in-a-worcester-manuscript/ ) described a short poem from the early 13th Century Worcester Cathedral Library manuscript F. 174, which praised the far off days of the Anglo-Saxons, when England was blessed with wise saints who could talk to the people about God and about Christianity, and even read the Bible to them in their own language.

It is followed by a much longer poem – anglo-saxon in origin, but tanslated into the West Midlands English dialect of c.1200 – in which a dead man’s soul reproaches the body awaiting burial for all the sins it committed in life that have now condemned them both to everlasting torment in hell. It has no title in the manuscript, but has been called The Soul’s Address to the Body. And it pulls no punches!

Tremulous Hand

The first page of the poem in Worcester Manuscript F.174. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

It describes in great detail how the body is crammed into the coffin and how the worms in the ground feast on its rotting remains. This is a modern translation in the Anglo-Saxon poetic form of two half lines, based on that offered first by S. W. Singer in 1845, in his Departing Soul’s Address To The Body: A Fragment with an English Translation.

Now you have a new house        a crowded dwelling;

Low is the ceiling                        short are the side walls,

The roof lies very close               to your breast

Your bed is cold                         and you are clad in clothes

Your slaves would refuse

Now worms shall grow                beside you

They will greedily devour you     for they like your flesh,

They will eat your foul carcase    as long as they can find it;

When it is all gone                     they will gnaw your bones.

They will wade                           wide in your stomach;

Dividing your entrails                 that were dear to you.

Your liver and your lights           loathfully rending,

And so shall waste away             your stomach and your spleen.

There is no doubt that people will get the picture! This was a call to penitence similar to others found elsewhere in Latin and Anglo-Saxon writings, and here updated for a thirteenth-century Worcestershire audience by the Tremulous Hand himself – the monk of Worcester Cathedral identifiable by the distinctive tremow in his handwriting. Life begins with the new-born child bewailing its arrival in the world; and if the body is selfish and wicked it will end on Judgement Day with a sentence of perpetual hell-fire and damnation.

Then shall we depart                into uttermost sorrow,

go with fiends                          in that everlasting fire,

to burn for ever;                       end is there never.

Worcester Cathedral Library

Image of a ‘Hell Mouth’ in the Dean’s Chapel of Worcester Cathedral. These relief carvings could well have been made during the lifetime of the monk known as the Tremulous Hand. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral Library.

The soul laments the life it has led, where like an innocent and idealistic young wife it has been forced to endure the whims of a gross and selfish husband.

I was God’s daughter,               but you hindered that fostering.

I might life have held,               that he would have given me.

I was your wife,                        as the book says:

Uxor tua sicut                           vitis habundans.

I was wedded to you                 honourably,

at the fount stone,                             that you have defiled

with your foul oaths.

Notice the Latin quotation from Psalm 128, meaning “your wife shall be fruitful as a vine”. Such quotes are often found in medieval writings, as it could be assumed that most readers and listeners would be familiar with the language.

The soul recalls its high beginnings, the last and finest handiwork of the creating God:

On high was I created,             and named soul.

I was the seventh creation,       as the book says,

that Almighty God                    mercifully wrought.

Truly by his word                      thus it all came to pass:

heaven and earth,                    air and angels,

wind and water,                        the soul of man,

these are the seven                  that I before mentioned.

These were made                     by the Almighty Father.

But the body is sinful and destroys this fine relationship;

I was sent to you                      innocent from God,

but you have undone us,                   with your wicked deeds.

Ever were you greedy,              and filled with fierceness.

I hardly in you                          had any dwelling,

for hard covetousness,             and foul gluttony;

for your belly was your god,      and you spoiled your glory.

You have lost everlasting bliss, and deprived yourself of Paradise.

A vivid image compares these sins to the sharp prickles on a hedgehog, quite soft and comfortable to the wearer but piercing to the soul:

Thus you were with sin             beset all within;

those sinful pikes                     prick me full sore,

you turned to yourself              all that was soft

and ever the sharp                             scored towards me.

And now will prick me               those pikes in hell;

punish me full sore                             for your sin.

All the things that were gained in this world by sin and wickedness will simply be passed on to others greedily awaiting the burial of the body. The soul mockingly addresses them:

Where are they                         that sat sorry over you,

praying right earnestly             that help might come to you?

They thought it all too long       that you were alive,

For they were greedy                to grip your property.

They divide it among them,      they do without you,

and now they are prompt                   to bring you out of house

bearing you out at the door.

Some commentators have noted that the soul is shown here as helpless and unable to stop the wickedness of the body, which was never the doctrine of the church. Others point out it was not meant to be a theological argument, but a simple call to ordinary people to repent their sins, using the familiar tactic of thoroughly scaring them. Some later poems on this theme have the body and soul blaming each other, but here it is all the body’s fault.

There is little doubt that the author of the poem had seen death at close hand, as can be seen in these lines describing the body’s end:

For heavy is his groaning                    and sorrowful his wailing

and all rueful his lot                  with sorrow encompassed.

His ears deafen                         his eyes become dim

his nose sharpens                    his lips shrink

his tongue shortens                  his sense fails

his strength wastes                             his heart chills

his bones lie still.

The Tremulous Hand was perhaps looking for works in the language of ordinary people that could be useful to preachers. Something is missing from this depiction of death and the afterlife. It is the late medieval doctrine of Purgatory as a place where even a sinful soul can be prepared for Heaven by suffering in fire for a time after death. This omission demonstrates the early origin of the poem, as the idea of Purgatory was not a part of Anglo-Saxon Christian teaching.

Worcester Cathedral Library

Image of purgatory in a much later (15th century) Dutch Book of Hours, WCL MS Q.103. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral Library (UK)

We do not know if this manuscript was ever used by anyone to commemorate the lost days of Anglo-Saxon Christian learning, or to frighten a congregation into thinking seriously about death, judgement and hell fire. Eventually someone decided it was too old and incomprehensible to be worth keeping, and cut it up and pasted the pieces together to strengthen the cover of another more useful book. Thanks to the sharp eye and acquisitive nature of Sir Thomas Phillipps, Worcester Cathedral Library now has a unique and fascinating record from its own medieval past, created by its internationally famous Tremulous Hand!

Tim O’Mara

To read more about the discover of manuscript F.174 by Sir Thomas Phillips in the 1837,read Tim’s blog here: https://worcestercathedrallibrary.wordpress.com/2015/01/14/lost-manuscripts-discovered-by-sir-thomas-phillipps/


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