Congratulations to David K. Coley who was awarded the 2020 Margaret Wade Labarge Prize for his book Death and the Pearl Maiden: Plague, Poetry, England, published by The Ohio State University Press in 2019. For more details, see below.
Death and the Pearl Maiden examines a central question in medieval English literature: why did the immense shock of the Black Death – a pandemic scholars now think killed more than half the population of England – make so little explicit impact on vernacular English works of the second half of the fourteenth century? Through his analysis of the four poems in Cotton Nero A.x –Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – Coley argues that the plague’s trauma was both woven through these works and yet ineffable, largely suppressed but omnipresent. As he puts it, “the human response to traumatic events exists as a negotiation between acknowledgement and suppression, between the need to speak events that are too terrible to ignore and the desire to deny events that are too painful to speak” (p. 6). Coley’s book is especially and indeed wrenchingly resonant in 2020, though its excellence rests on its interdisciplinary erudition and virtuosic readings of late medieval texts rather than its sheer timeliness.Coley’s careful reimagining and re-reading of poems that have generated a great deal of scholarly discussion is new and illuminating. His acknowledgment of the often vexed and delicate relationship between historical scholarship and literature is carefully established in order to set up his reading of poems not typically associated with the plague. In lucid prose he offers a useful and indeed essential re-reading of the poems of the Pearl manuscript, thus managing to narrow his scope of “Middle English in the fourteenth century” for his purpose but also, tantalizingly, opening up a world of possibilities to re-read much of contemporary Middle English poetry – and indeed cultural productions of any time or place – for new “whispers” of trauma. Coley is especially good at close reading these poems even as he carefully locates them in a social, political and medical historical moment. He asks us (and shows us how) to seek a poetry that responds to the Black Death by revealing a hidden and “muffled” response to the trauma of plague in medieval England.