The Urbanization of Hell in Medieval Infernal Literature: “WhenTungdali met Lucyfer”
Consortium: A Journal of Crossdisciplinary Inquiry (2011)
The entire body of Western knowledge about Hell comes from a series of manuscripts describing journeys in the afterworld. The texts I will discuss constitute a genre that I will refer to as “Infernal literature” and only existed during the middle ages (from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries) as eschatological testimonies of travels in the otherworld. This paper will only consider the texts written before the end of the twelfth century in the Christian World such as Vision Drycthelm (730), Vision Tungdali (1149), Espurgatoire Seint Patriz (1190), Vision d’Eynsham (1196) and Vision Thurchill (1206), all of which I will refer to during my demonstration. Using the Vision Tungdali as a central text that sets up the evolution of everything that follows, I will argue that Hell was first staged as a divine object, then transformed into a product of nature, and only later was it defined as a human creation.
A Genre Branded By Medieval Aspirations: Hell was not created from a void. Documents referring to Hell existed in the ancient ages starting with Gilgamesh, and throughout Antiquity most of the heroes, at a certain point, visited death (L’épopée de Gilgamesh, 1994). Two distinct aspects of the infernal literature are that the journey through Hell is the exclusive purpose of the narrative and that the traveler does not visit death, but the Christian afterworld. Plutarch’s Vision of Thespesios, A.D. 81 is the only text that has all the ingredients to belong to the infernal literature. Although it does not refer to the Christian eschatology it does involve salvation of the soul, moral code and ethical values. Plutarch was widely read and we can find some influence in Gregorian writing as Venerable Bede and other monastic texts. All of these texts describe a passage in the afterworld, which may include distinct levels of purgatory or its equivalent, Paradise, the children’s limbo (limbus infantum), the fathers’ limbo (limbus partum) and Hell, in different orders. They became so precise and descriptive that, at that time, the geography of Hell was better known than that of Earth.