Home  »  English Prose  »  Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400)

Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century

Description of Hell

Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400)

From “The Parson’s Tale,” in the Canterbury Tales.

THE THIRD cause that ought move a man to contrition, is dread of the day of doom, and of the horrible pains of hell. For as St. Jerome saith, at every time that I remember me of the day of doom, I quake; for when I eat or drink, or what so that I do, ever seemeth me that the trump soundeth in mine ear, Rise ye up that be dead, and come to the judgment. Oh good God! much ought a man to dread such a judgment, there as we shall be all, as saith St. Paul, before the seat of our Lord Jesu Christ; where as he shall make a general congregation, where as no man may be absent, for certes there availeth no essoin nor excusation; and not only that our default shall be judged, but eke that all our works shall be openly known. And as St. Bernard saith there shall no plaining avail nor no sleight; we shall give reckoning of every idle word. There shall we have a judge that may not be deceived nor corrupt; and why? for certes, all our thoughts be discovered as to him, nor for prayer, nor for mede he will not be corrupt. And, therefore, saith Solomon, the wrath of God will not spare no wight for prayer nor for gift. And, therefore, at the day of doom there is no hope to escape. Wherefore, as St. Anselm saith, full great anguish shall the sinful folk have at that time; there shall be the stern and the wroth judge set above, and under him the horrible pit of hell open, to destroy him that would not beknow his sins, which sins openly be shewed before God and before every creature; and on the left side more devils than heart may think for to harry and to draw the sinful souls to the pain of hell; and within the hearts of folk shall be the biting conscience, and without forth shall be the world all burning. Whither shall then the wretched sinful man flee to hide him? Certes he may not hide him, he must come forth and shew him. For certes, as saith St. Jerome, the earth shall cast him out of him and the sea also, and the air also, that shall be full of thunder-claps and lightnings. Now soothly, who-so well remembreth him of these tidings, I guess his sin shall not turn him to delight but to great sorrow, for dread of the pain of hell. And, therefore, saith Job to God, suffer, Lord, that I may a while bewail and weep, or I go without returning to the dark land covered with darkness of death, to the land of misease and of darkness, whereas is the shadow of death, whereas is none order nor ordinance, but grisly dread that ever shall last. Lo, here may ye see, that Job prayed respite a while, to weep and bewail his trespass: for forsooth one day of respite is better than all the treasure in this world. And for as much as a man may acquit himself before God by penance in this world and not by treasure, therefore should he pray to God, to give him respite a while, to weep and to wail his trespass. For certes, all the sorrow that a man might make from the beginning of the world, is but a little thing at regard of the sorrow of hell. The cause why that Job calleth hell the land of darkness, understandeth that he clepeth it land or earth, for it is stable and never shall fail: and dark, for he that is in hell hath default of light material: for certes the dark light that shall come out of the fire that ever shall burn, shall turn him to pain that is in hell, for it sheweth him to the horrible devils that him torment. Covered with the darkness of death: that is to say, that he that is in hell, shall have default of the sight of God: for certes the sight of God is the life perdurable. The darkness of death be the sins that the wretched man hath done, which that disturb him to see the face of God, right as a dark cloud doth betwixt us and the sun. Land of misease: because that there be three manner of defaults against three things that folks in this world have in this present life, that is to say, honours, delices, riches. Against honours have they in hell shame and confusion: for well ye wit that men clepe honour the reverence that men do to the man; but in hell is none honour nor reverence: for certes no more reverence shall be done there to a king than to a knave. For which God saith by the prophet Jeremiah, thilk folk that me displease, shall be in despite. Honour is eke cleped great lordship. There shall no wight serve other, but of harm and of torment. Honour eke is cleped great dignity and highness; but in hell shall they be all for-trode of devils. And God saith, the horrible devils shall go and come upon the heads of damned folk; and this is, for as much as the higher that they were in this present life, the more shall they be abated and defiled in hell. Against riches of this world shall they have misease of poverty, and this poverty shall be in four things: in default of treasure, of which, as David saith, the rich folk that embraced and united in all their heart the treasure of this world, shall sleep in the sleeping of death, and nothing shall they find in their hands of all their treasure. And moreover, the misease of hell shall be in the default of meat and drink. For God saith thus by Moses, they shall be wasted by hunger, and the birds of hell shall devour them with bitter teeth, and the gall of the dragon shall be their drink, and the venom of the dragon their morsels. And further, moreover their misease shall be in default of clothing, for they shall be naked in body, as of clothing, save of fire in which they burn, and other filths; and naked shall they be of soul, of all manner virtues, which that is the clothing of the soul. Where be then the gay robes, and the soft sheets, and the small shirts? Lo, what saith of them the Prophet Isaiah, under them shall be strawed moths, and their covertures shall be of worms of hell. And further, moreover their misease shall be in default of friends, for he is not poor that hath good friends; but here is no friend, for neither God nor no creature shall be friend unto them, and every of them shall hate other with deadly hate. The sons and the daughters shall rebel against the father and the mother, and kindred against kindred, and chide and despise every of them other, both day and night, as God saith by the Prophet Micah, and the loving children that whilom loved so fleshly every other would every of them eat other if they might. For how should they love them together in the pain of hell, when they hated every of them other in the prosperity of this life? For trust well their fleshly love was deadly hate; as saith the Prophet David, Whoso that loveth wickedness, he hateth his soul, and whoso hateth his own soul certes he may love none other wight in no manner. And therefore in hell is no solace nor friendship, but ever the more fleshly kindreds that be in hell, the more cursing, the more chidings, and the more deadly hate there is among them. And furtherover they shall have default of all manner delices; for certes delices be after the appetites of the five wits; as sight, hearing, smelling, savouring, and touching. But in hell their sight shall be full of darkness and of smoke, and their eyes, therefore, full of tears; and their hearing full of waymenting, and of grunting of teeth, as saith Jesu Christ, their nostrils shall be full of stinking stink; and, as saith Isaiah the Prophet, their savouring shall be full of bitter gall; and touching of all their body shall be covered with fire that never shall quench, and with worms that never shall die, as God saith by the mouth of Isaiah. And for all so much as they shall not ween that they may die for pain, and by their death flee from pain, that may they understand in the word of Job, that saith, there is the shadow of death. Certes a shadow hath the likeness of the thing of which it is a shadow; but the shadow is not the same thing of which it is shadow; right so fareth the pain of hell; it is like death, for the horrible anguish; and why? for it paineth them ever as though men should die anon; but certes they shall not die. For, as saith St. Gregory, to wretched caitiffs shall be given death without death, and end without end, and default without failing; for their death shall always live, and their end shall evermore begin, and their default shall not fail. And, therefore, saith St. John the Evangelist, they shall follow death, and they shall not find him, and they shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them. And eke Job saith, that in hell is no order of rule. And albeit that God hath created all things in right order, and no thing without order, but all things be ordained and numbered, yet natheless they that be damned be not in order, nor hold no order. For the earth shall bear them no fruit (for, as the Prophet David saith, God shall destroy the fruit of the earth as for them), nor water shall give them no moisture, nor the air no refreshing, nor fire no light. For, as saith St. Basil, the burning of the fire of this world shall God give in hell to them that be damned, but the light and the clearness shall be given in heaven to his children; right as the good man gives flesh to his children and bones to his hounds. And for they shall have no hope to escape, saith St. Job, at the last, that there shall horror and grisly dread dwell without end. Horror is alway dread of harm that is to come, and this dread shall ever dwell in the hearts of them that be damned. And, therefore, have they lorn all their hope for seven causes. First, for God that is their judge shall be without mercy to them, nor they may not please Him, nor none of His hallows, nor they may give no thing for their ransom, nor they have no voice to speak to Him, nor they may not flee from pain, nor they have no goodness in them that they may show to deliver them from pain. And, therefore, saith Solomon, the wicked man dieth, and when he is dead he shall have no hope to escape from pain. Whoso would then well understand these pains and bethink him well that he hath deserved thilk pains for his sins, certes he should have more talent to sigh and to weep, than for to sing or play. For as that Solomon saith, Whoso that had the science to know the pains that be established and ordained for sin he would make sorrow.