David K. Coley, Simon Fraser University
Back in early March, while the world was watching a “regional viral threat” grow into a global pandemic, a few people started nudging me to “write a quick something about COVID-19 and the plague.” These nudges made some sense. My book Death and the Pearl Maiden: Plague, Poetry, England had been out for about a year, journal reviews had started cropping up, and suddenly the past I’d researched and theorized seemed a little less distant. It was also fast becoming clear that other medievalists were already writing various quick somethings about COVID-19 and the plague, rolling out think pieces and blog posts and Tweet-threads at an intimidating pace. Friends and colleagues who had been listening to me hold forth about the “Black Death” (a problematic moniker to be certain) for the better part of a decade reasoned that I, too, might have something to contribute. My Associate Dean encouraged me to pitch a piece to The Conversation (which promises “academic rigour” to go with its “journalistic flair”); my department’s communications guru asked me to make a video from quarantine discussing my book (I obliged on that one, albeit awkwardly); even my parents weighed in, hoping perhaps that their medievalist son might finally write something they’d want to read.
In general, I think I am a good colleague and son, and I am responsive to suggestions. I’m also not stupid. I know that you’ve got to strike while the iron’s hot; I know that you should sell when you can, for you are not for all markets; and I know that when your chances fall in your lap like that, you’ve got to recognize them for what they really are. So I sat down and tried to write a quick something about COVID-19 and the plague.
I won’t say I’ve gotten nowhere, but I’ve not gotten very far. Here, in chronological order, are some opening sentences that I have produced since March:
It is a strange sensation, as someone who studies and writes about the distant past, to find my work suddenly regarded as relevant.
Let’s start with this simple fact: COVID-19 is not the Black Death.
What comes after a global pandemic? What does the future look like when the present seems so bleak? Looking to the medieval past might be one way to consider such pressing questions. (NB: I’m so ashamed of these three sentences. Please let them never see the light of day.)
We are now three months into a global pandemic.
All of a sudden, everyone’s an expert. (NB: This one still has potential.)
None of these is “Call me Ishmael,” but that’s hardly a searing indictment. “Call me Ishmael” is already taken, and besides, with the exception of that garbage about looking to the medieval past they all seem like reasonable beginnings to a quick something about COVID-19 and the plague, something my parents might want to read, something that might even engender a surprisingly hostile response or two from a fellow academic. But nothing has come of these somethings.
I have some thoughts about why.
To begin, I have increasingly come to recognize that despite its title, its pestilential subject matter, and the rat on its cover, my book about the plague really isn’t about the plague. There has, as it happens, been an exciting new wave of scholarship on the plague in recent years, the most important of which (in case anyone’s asking my opinion) is the work of Monica Green, which enriches our understanding of pandemic in profound ways. Death and the Pearl Maiden is actually less interested in the plague than in responses to the plague, in the question of how literature might speak a traumatic event that was simultaneously too terrible to invoke and too all-encompassing to ignore.
The puzzle that scholars like Monica Green—let’s call them real plague scholars—are piecing together has to do with the lingering mysteries of the pandemic itself, the specific phylogenetic tree from which it emerged, the relationships among the medieval wave and other outbreaks, the precise circumstances that rendered it so virulent. The problem that Death and the Pearl Maiden seeks to address is instead the problem of silence. The book implicitly wonders about all those medieval chronicles that insert a casual note about the death of half of Europe between a lengthy account of the election of a new abbot and some extended whinging about the ornaments that have gone missing from the monastic chapel (I’m looking at you, Meaux Abbey Chronicle). It more explicitly wonders about a brilliant and socially engaged corpus of literature that relegates the signal cultural trauma of its age to a short parable about three drunks searching for death and some one liners in a story about horny chickens (I’m looking at you, Geoffrey Chaucer). The book also addresses our own contemporary expectations about what responses to a plague should look like. To that last point, we seem, especially following the blistering introduction to Boccaccio’s Decameron, to expect a medieval literary response that matched, in both tone and gravity, the grim event itself. Surely we would exhibit such dignity, such narrative grace, when confronted with our own pandemic. Wouldn’t we? Wouldn’t we? Of course we would.
Second (and here I suspect I speak for others who are strapped into the roller coaster of this awful year), the parameters of this thing keep hurtling outwards at a ferocious clip. One of the lessons of the Black Death, of course, is that the changes it engendered shuddered across almost all of the social, economic, religious, and cultural systems of the medieval world, that the impact of the disease didn’t stop with its obscene body count. But to witness similar causal impacts develop in the terrifying time lapse of the present, to live and participate in an ongoing pandemic reality, is very different from studying it. In just the past few months, we have plunged from the terror of a new disease and a wild frenzy of hand washing into a series of worldwide protests against racialized violence and police brutality, into a reckoning with how systemic racism and structural inequalities drive the spread of the virus, into an unflinching recognition of how a pernicious economic system will sacrifice its own adherents on the impossible altar of continuous growth. Remember how we all scrambled to get a few disposable masks back in March? By May, those same masks had already become a shibboleth in the most ludicrous debate over personal freedom since the invention of the seat-belt. And over all of it, at least in North America, we have watched as a callow and narcissistic American president whipsawed the United States government from ignorance to xenophobia to paralysis to fear-mongering to magical thinking to chest-thumping ignorance; watched as that government encouraged our colleagues and students back into universities equipped with little more than branded face masks and hand sanitizer; watched as they sent our children into packed school hallways and punished them for speaking out about it; watched as they reminded us again and again just how expendable we all are, how expendable we have always been; watched as they leveraged the greatest public health crisis in a century into a voter suppression scheme that mimicked, in both scope and brazenness, similar strategies from the Jim Crow era. It has been a lot to take in.
It’s clear that the strike-slips at all these social and cultural fault lines—urgent and long building as they may be—are a logical result of the pressures of this pandemic. That, too, is a lesson that those of us who study the medieval plague ought to have learned. Despite what you might have read, the Black Death did not singlehandedly allow entree to “the fresh air of common sense” or lead survivors toward the “intellectual overthrow of the scholastic-medicine establishment in the Middle Ages.” (Seriously? You’re better than that, New Yorker.) It did, however, catalyze significant social changes in the medieval and early modern world, both for good and for ill. In some respects, then, we might recognize the rapid post-pandemic ascendency of the Black Lives Matter movement, which had already been building steadily for several years before the murders George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, as a contemporary analogue to such catalytic shifts. More loosely (and this is, I know, a deeply flawed parallel), we might also see the ongoing protests in cities like Portland and Seattle—movements marked by righteous and justified anger and tinged with both productive and repressive violence—as latter-day avatars of the Rising of 1381, an explosive expression of long-standing social grievances sparked by one ill-conceived poll tax too many in an unsettled post-plague environment. (Does this make the reactionary responses of our capitalist ruling classes analogues of the 1351 Statute of Labourers? Way to be on the wrong side of history, guys!)
In our hyperlinked, TL/DR, speed-of-thought world, such shocks come quickly, and their aftershocks follow fast behind. And—speaking for myself now—I am a slow writer. Sometimes I’m barely a writer at all. I pick through evidence and let it sit around in unruly piles, let it hang out with some primary texts, let it chat with a few draft paragraphs and some illegible notes. Every time I think I’m closing in on my quick something about COVID-19 and the plague, that something turns out to be already gone, rattled by the next earthquake, swallowed by the next conflagration, drowned in the next flood. In my not infrequent moments of self doubt, I fear that this pace makes me something of a brachiosaur. Some day I will be crushed under layers of sediment, my bones squeezed into oil and burned for a few seconds of heat. I am no blogger.
Brachiosaur or not, I am finding that the biggest impediment to writing during a pandemic is, at the end of the day, the pandemic itself, its smothering presence, its terrible threat to family and friends and self, the anxious sense of contingency that marches before it, the reality of the thing, the possibility of illness, of death. My older daughter is leaving for her first year at University (which will be offering a safe-ish mixture of online and in-person classes), and I am alternately thrilled and terrified for her. My father and my mother are old, and my stepparents are older. My closest friends have a medically fragile child and live in a highly affected area. The border between my new country and my old country—between my family and my family—has been closed for months, and it shows no immediate sign of re-opening. A quick something about COVID-19 and the plague? A blog post? Strike while the iron is hot? Seriously?
Why strike while the iron is hot? Why strike at all when this is what’s heating the iron? What kind of vulture are you to strike at this hot iron? What kind of monster are you to pick up your hammer and tongs? When your friends are suffering? When your colleagues are dying? How dare you step to the forge at a time like this? You’re better than that, David.
One of the central points around which I organized Death and the Pearl Maiden was the recognition, developed in contemporary trauma theory, that severe trauma “exceeds the resources of representational practice—and the ability of the memory to make sense of it.”1 In the case of the literature I looked at in my book, I considered the plague through precisely that challenge to representation, which is to say through its necessary absence. The plague emerged in the poems of the Pearl Manuscript, I speculated, not directly but rather where it appeared to be suppressed, in those places where it was conspicuously elided: in Pearl’s evasive punning and wordplay; in Cleanness’s displacement of violence onto biblical allusion; in Patience’s pregnant narrative embellishments; in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s subversion of Romance clichés. Such narrative gestures might not directly invoke the plague itself, I argued, but they could nonetheless reveal the pressure that it exerted on writers working in its shadow. Taken together, they allow us to glimpse the Black Death within the negative literary space that trauma creates, to see, for a moment, the outline of the plague in the quiet eddy of its slipstream.
In the hands of a writer like the nameless maker of Pearl, such pressure on representational praxis crystallized a series of compelling, harrowing, beautiful, and (in at least two cases) transcendent works, each sengeley in synglure within English literature. In the hands of an academic urged by friends and colleagues to write a quick something about COVID-19 and the plague, such pressure has altogether less impressive results. Even in this blog post (which I fully intend to finish, Derrick and Vin; look, I’m almost there) I recognize in diminished form the jittery hallmarks of plague writing that I identified in the work of the Pearl poet: the recourse to narrative cliché and stock allusion; the sublimation of the terrible realities of pandemic disease into a narrative of personal anxiety and frustration; the pathological avoidance of writing itself; the embarrassment of admitting to struggling when the struggles of others are so much greater, so much more important, so much more painful. Such writerly paralyses are not, I think, just signs of mental exhaustion or fatigue. They are, rather, responses to the pandemic, indicia of this new horror that seems now to close in on us from all sides.
One more narrative cliché to dull the edge; one more stuttering matryoshka-doll allusion to prop up the effort; apologies to one or two more poets who wrote in the shadow of terrible events. I thought I was fatigued, but I was not fatigued. In short, I was—I am—afraid.
 D. Vance Smith, “Plague, Panic Space, and the Tragic Medieval Household,” South Atlantic Quarterly 98 (1999): 367-414, at 383-84. This idea precedes Smith’s work of course, but I love the way he encapsulates it in this phrase.