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Medievalism without Nostalgia: Guyon’s Swoon and the English Reformation Descensus ad Inferos

Author(s): Leo, Russell J

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Abstract: The Cave of Mammon episode in Edmund Spenser’s work The Faerie Queene mirrors Christ’s descent into hell, following his death on the cross—the descensus Christi ad inferos of the Apostles’ Creed, also known as the Harrowing of Hell.1 By 1590, the descensus had long been the subject of intense controversy, a difficult and divisive theological issue. In traditional determinations of the descensus, Christ’s is a literal descent, a glorious and triumphant event. But many English Protestants interpreted the descensus as a measure Christ’s suffering and humiliation—not a glorious descent but, rather, an expression of the agony of Christus patiens. This essay offers a thorough survey of English theological approaches to the descensus, from the 1550s to the early 1590s, followed by a treatment of Spenser’s innovative interpretation and his critical retrieval of key medieval approaches. Spenser’s is a theological and poetic experiment, testing the limits of human temperance against overwhelming guile. Moreover, his is duly an instructive use of medieval materials—not a reparative or nostalgic longing for the English Middle Ages but rather a recovery of native English poetic resources to focus attention on being in the world, to reshape the contours of Protestant theological debate gone awry.
Publication Date: 2014
Citation: Leo, Russell J. "Medievalism without Nostalgia: Guyon’s Swoon and the English Reformation Descensus ad Inferos." Spenser Studies 29 (2014): 105-147. doi:10.7756/spst.029.006.105-147.
DOI: doi:10.7756/spst.029.006.105-147
ISSN: 0195-9468
EISSN: 2167-8529
Pages: 105 - 147
Type of Material: Journal Article
Journal/Proceeding Title: Spenser Studies
Version: Final published version. Article is made available in OAR by the publisher's permission or policy.

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