Book Cover

Death and the Pearl Maiden

Plague, Poetry, England

David K. Coley

10 illustrations
Pub Date: January, 2019

Subjects: Medieval Studies
Literary Studies, British & Irish

Series: Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture

Order Hardcover $99.95   ISBN 978-0-8142-1390-2
order Paperback $34.95   ISBN: 978-0-8142-5522-3
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Winner of the 2020 Margaret Wade Labarge Prize from the Canadian Society of Medievalists

“Intriguing and oddly timely.… Like Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror (1978), Coley’s well-researched book urges us to sort out what’s quiet in the chaos amidst our own clear and present danger.” —E. L. Risden, Speculum

“This is a bold book, replete with shimmering argument leading to daring conclusions. The book discusses plague writing in England as a kind of forgotten history. But Coley argues that by reading allusion and fiction attentively, irregular history becomes visible.” Helen Barr, author of Transporting Chaucer

The plague first arrived in the English port of Weymouth in the summer of 1348. Two years later, half of Britain was dead, but the Black Death was just beginning. In the decades to come, England would suffer recurring outbreaks, social and cultural upheaval, and violent demographic shifts. The pandemic was, by any measure, a massive cultural trauma; however, within the vernacular English literature of the fourteenth century, the response to the disease appears muted, particularly compared to contemporaneous descriptions emerging from mainland Europe.

Death and the Pearl Maiden: Plague, Poetry, England asks why one of the singular historical traumas of the later Middle Ages appears to be evoked so fleetingly in fourteenth-century Middle English poetry, a body of work as daring and socially engaged as any in English literary history. By focusing on under-recognized pestilential discourses in Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—the four poems uniquely preserved in British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x —this study resists the idea that the Black Death had only a slight impact on medieval English literature, and it strives to account for the understated shape of England’s literary response to the plague and our contemporary understandings of it.

David K. Coley is Associate Professor of English at Simon Fraser University.


List of Illustrations


A Note on the Text

Introduction     Forgotten History

Part 1   Plague in the Pearl Manuscript: Symptom and Response

Chapter 1        Trauma, Witness, and Representation in Cleanness

Chapter 2        Pearl and the Language of Plague

Part 2   Beyond the Symptomatic: Considering Plague in Fourteenth-Century England

Chapter 3        Flight and Enclosure in Patience

Chapter 4        Sex, Death, and Social Change in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Conclusion      A Pestilence Whispered