Saturday, August 27, 2011

"Harrow, by nails and by blood!"

My dear friend Rose was only one of many who readily see the image of Christ in Chaucer's Host. John, my publisher, recognized what Chaucer was doing and so did Eric, book designer extraordinaire.
     Preparation of my first book (Chaucer's Host) for publication was lengthy and complicated, but exciting. Galleys to proof. Deadlines to meet. I loved the cover design. When I received a copy of the material for the back cover, the synopsis of the book meant to be a hook to catch a reader, I called John immediately, but it was Eric who answered the phone.
     "Eric, who chose the quote to head the back cover?"
     "I did. Why? Is something wrong?"
     "No. Nothing's wrong. It's perfect!"
     When Eric read the book to get a feel for the image he wanted to create, he singled out that phrase: "Harrow, by nails and by blood!" It is the most powerful "clue" the Host speaks--that is, as words spoken by Christ. "By nails and by blood" is easy to grasp as a reference to crucifixion, but what is "harrow"?
     Typical guidance from footnotes in the Tales will explain the word to be "a common ejaculation of obscure origin." That's one way to look at it. But what is in tune with the presence of Christ is the religious drama popular in Chaucer's day: The Harrowing of Hell. It is the portrayal of the crucified Christ, during the three days before his resurrection, descending to the gates of hell to burst them and release the righteous souls who had been waiting to be delivered by Him. The phrase--Chaucer's line--then, is a recollection of the harrowing of hell, as a consequence of being crucified. Harrow is not "obscure" at all; it is the object of Christ's sacrifice. He came to die and harrow hell.
     Eric saw the words he chose as the core of the book's message.


  1. this is a wonderful post, Dolores. Has Eric seen it? I'll pass it along to him, just in case. Good work!

  2. Many thanks to both of you--as always.

  3. Hello Dolores,

    Interesting stuff, the comparison and inclusion of Christ references. I, unlike you and your literary colleagues, am not a Chaucer scholar or any other kind of scholar! My comments are not insightful, oh well...keep up the great writing!

  4. Mari, the stuff I find about the Pilgrims is so fascinating, it is irresistible to me. Once you see it, you can't turn away. You can't ignore it. At least I couldn't.
    Thanks for being interested and encouraging. :)

  5. I searched for an old Slavik Easter hymn sung at easter time, and sure enough the among the post I was looking for with the words to the hymn also had links entitled Christ's harrowing of hell.

    The Hymn

    Christ is risen from the dead,
    By death He conquered death,
    And to those in the graves
    He granted life!

    A beautiful hymn sung in Slavik and English over and over again for Easter vigil.

    When I read the line you mention with your interpretation I immediately thought of that song.

  6. Andrew, How good to hear from you. I don't have the hang of this blog stuff yet, but I'm determined. My dear friend Rose said maybe you have to be Catholic to understand Chaucer, I don't think it is that as much as just skimming past and not taking each word, each possibility seriously.