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 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.