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20.08.09 Coley, Death and the Pearl Maiden

20.08.09 Coley, Death and the Pearl Maiden


It is an odd sensation to review a book about a pandemic during a pandemic. At the same time, the task is lightened by the surroundings. Much of what David Coley describes in Death and the Pearl Maiden: Plague, Poetry, England resonates with events, attitudes, and situations that can be observed in the world in the spring of 2020. Arguments that would have been convincing enough based on the historical and textual evidence he uses in the monograph now seem almost self-evident. Had I reviewed this volume four months ago, I would have written that Death and the Pearl Maiden is a bold, brilliant book that promises to change how we understand the relationship between the trauma of fourteenth-century plague outbreaks and Middle English literature. I would have written, too, that Coley's careful, circumscribed argument that the poems now preserved in British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x, also known as the Pearl Manuscript, reflect the cultural experience of plague in England even though they never explicitly mention it, offers a corrective to established historicisms and a stimulus to read medieval literature for what it cannot express as well as for what it can. This much is true, but the circumstances move me to add another note of praise. Death and the Pearl Maiden is humanistic research at its finest, animating historical, theoretical, and literary approaches to understand how human beings in the past saw and sought to represent monumental societal crisis. In doing so, it teaches us how literature may come to serve our own need for meaning and testimony in the face of world-changing danger.

Coley begins his book with a central question already addressed in scholarship: why did the Black Death and later reoccurrences of plague leave so little trace on Middle English literature? Given the estimated 3.5 million deaths in England, amounting to a loss of over 60% of the population, it is fair to assume no one in England in the second half of the fourteenth century was untouched by the catastrophe. And yet substantial treatments such as those of continental writers--Boccaccio, Machaut, Petrarch--are not to be found. (Coley lists exceptions, including brief references in Chaucer, Langland, Wynnere and Wastour.) Instead of a hard thesis, Coley offers a possibility: that the poems of the Pearl Manuscript constitute "a still underrecognized pestilential discourse" (7), one that does not reflect historical events in any straightforward way, but shows their traces through "oblique referentiality, linguistic play, and allusive embodiment" (6). Building on the work of Elizabeth Scala, Patricia Clare Ingham, and Aranye Fradenburg Joy in particular, Coley approaches his corpus with the recognition that trauma urges both representation and suppression. The effect of trauma on writing does not always fulfill historicist expectations. Rather, traumatic experiences and events appear in literature in oblique, distorted ways. They are as likely to lead to "silence and inarticulacy" (15) as to as they are to straightforward portrayals or testimony.

The body of Death and the Pearl Maiden is divided into two parts. The first, including chapters on Cleanness and Pearl, describes possible responses to the trauma of the plague. The second part, with studies of Patience and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, argues that these poems may reflect the effects of plague on particular social contexts and situations. Chapter 1, "Trauma, Witness, and Representation in Cleanness," lays out the intellectual foundation for much of the book with an accessible and lucid discussion of contemporary theorizations of trauma and narrative. Trauma, as Coley shows, leads to conflicting impulses: on the one hand, to speak, testify, narrate, and endlessly repeat, on the other, to mumble, stumble, fall silent. Coley proposes a generous reading of a poem that, due to its intolerance and didacticism, finds few fans today. He sees, in Lot's wife, not only the victim of a traumatic event, but its silenced witness: she turns to look at the human suffering of Sodom's destruction. Lot, in this telling, represents the desire to avoid facing trauma, even though his actions are considered morally upright in the context of the poem. Cleanness, he argues, contains both a didactic interpretation of past traumatic events that reorients them towards a better future, and a recognition of the "devastating human loss" (44) contained in those events. The poem is, in this reading, symptomatic of a post-plague psychology, a point Coley strengthens by revealing lexical echoes of the Bubonic plague in its descriptions of scenes of disaster.

The polyvalent possibilities of Middle English are also central to the second chapter, "Pearl and the Language of Plague." Coley shows how words such as "spot, clot, moul, bolne, bele" (68) can refer to elements of the garden in which the dreamer finds himself, but also recall the "buboes" and livid skin patches seen in plague victims. The poem draws on the pre-plague imaginative frame of the Man of Sorrows transforming into a woundless, triumphant Christ to build a story about the potential of imperfection to lead to perfection. Salvation, in this story, comes not through wholeness but through the wound. Coley's reading here is a moving demonstration of how a poem can harness older cultural resources to work through social and emotional upheaval. Pearl, as he puts it, "becomes pestilential as it reveals the hard-won beauty to which pestilence gives way" (77).

The first two chapters propose a loose relationship between the poems and events of the Plague. Although Coley discusses Jean-Paul Freidl and Ian Kirby's theory that the Pearl Maiden is based on a little girl who died of the Plague, he is more interested in showing how Pearl registers the devastating loss of later epidemics that were particularly fatal to the young. Coley's analysis becomes more historically specific in the third chapter, "Flight and Enclosure in Patience." He shows how Patience's depiction of Jonas recalls specific social issues prompted by the Plague: mass flight from the cities (understandable, though judged as negatively by medieval moralists as by today's), indoor isolation as protection from infection, and the predicament of clergy faced with a choice between abandoning the dying and facing greater risk themselves. Jonas is certainly a negative exemplum, but he is one whose refusal of God's command to carry out pastoral work in Nineveh is rendered understandable by his all-too human fear. "Patience," concludes Coley, "is...a poem of forgiveness, both divine and human" (107).

Only in the final chapter, "Sex, Death, and Social Change in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," does Coley's proposition lose some of its force. As in the other chapters, there are suggestive specific echoes of plague discourses here too: Gawain's neck nick recalls the wounds on the neck typical of artistic representations of plague in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and the Green Chapel, with its "cracked landscape, ominous vapors, and surging waters" (140) echoes the loci pestilentes thought to be a source of disease in medieval tracts. The chapter's overarching claim is that the unusual power female characters enjoy in Gawain reflects both the increased agency and wealth of English aristocratic women following the Plague, and the accusation in medical and moralistic texts linking the disease to unbridled sexuality, especially of women. In the terms Coley lays out for the book, it seems reasonable to assume that the treatment of women in Gawain could resonate with social conditions after the Plague. However, the misogyny portrayed in the poem has such a long and robust history that interpreting it in terms of the Plague is less illuminating than the readings in the first three chapters. Gawain, claims Coley, is "a profoundly, even repellently conservative text" (164). But what of its playfulness, is interest in games and masquerade and performance? It might have been interesting to see if Gawain's ludic elements could also be read as a response to great historical trauma.

Still, the book as a whole supports Coley's argument that "English writers in the late fourteenth century were always writing about the plague, whether they wanted to or not" (169). Another 2019 monograph, Elizabeth Outka's Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature (Columbia UP), has made similar powerful claims about the effect of the 1918-19 influenza epidemic on modernist writing, including the proposition that the ways disease influences literature are often hard to discern at first glance. This kind of statement seems obvious now. It is impossible to read and write in the wake of a pandemic and not be touched by it. It is also hard to represent the trauma of the pandemic even as one lives in it, or in fear of its next wave. But this was less obvious in 2019, and David Coley has done a stunning job of proving his point with sensitive, astute, and wide-ranging readings of medieval texts and images. Enlightening, elegantly written, and rigorously argued, Death and the Pearl Maiden testifies to the human capacity to respond to catastrophe with artistic creation. ​