Living on the Edge: A Study on Cultural Memory in Narratives from Medieval English Literature Before and After the Black Death
By Hsin-Chi Berenst
Master’s Thesis, Utrecht University, 2009
Abstract: This study concentrates itself on seven different Middle English works from the thirteenth and fourteenth century, namely ‘The Owl & the Nightingale’, ‘Parliament of Foules’, ‘Land of Cokaygne’, ‘Wynnere and Wastoure’, ‘Piers Plowman’, ‘Ubi Sount Qui Ante Nos Fuerount’, and ‘A Disputacioun betwyx þe Body and Wormes’. By comparing these different works in sets of two (and in one instance, three), where one work is pre-plague and the other post-plague, this thesis shows how the impact and effects of the pestilence reflected in literary works from that period.
Introduction: Leafing through James Thompson’s Economic and Social History of Europe in the Later Middle Ages (1300-1500) in search of interesting information on the economic development and its subsequent influence on literature in the later Middle Ages, which was one of my first thoughts for my Master thesis, I encountered the chapter on the “Black Death” that bore the interesting remark that literature after the outbreak of the plague exhibited a heavy decline in quality. Thompson states that people had lost their manners and that even the language demonstrated a steady deterioration. However, it is the following sentence that left a mark, “Every student of the literature of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries has observed this”. Since my main interest lies in the Middle English literature of the aforementioned period, I felt intrigued and slightly reprimanded at the same time. I had not yet noticed, nor had I ever been told, that the plague had impacted literature to such an extent that this had to be noticeable to anyone who had devoted any research and study to it for some time.