Infectious Fear: The Rhetoric of Pestilence in Middle English Didactic Texts on Death

Lawrence, Tom (2017) Infectious Fear: The Rhetoric of Pestilence in Middle English Didactic Texts on Death. English Studies, 98 (8). pp. 866-880. ISSN 0013-838X. E-ISSN 1744-4217. (doi:10.1080/0013838X.2016.1254477)

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Abstract

This article examines literary references to bubonic plague in a sample of late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century English texts that are didactic in tone and address the theme of death, including Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale”, John Lydgate’s “Danse Macabre” and the anonymous The Castle of Perseverance and “A Disputation between the Body and Worms”. Although there have been broad surveys of bubonic plague in Middle English literature, as well as studies of isolated texts, this article is the first to examine the role of pestilence in a group of texts linked by theme and authorial intention. It contributes to current understanding of the disease in late medieval literature and culture, showing how authors utilised the idea of pestilence as a frightening cause of sudden death and as a form of rhetoric serving to encourage readers to reflect on mortality, the spiritual health of the soul and the prospect of salvation. Whereas previous research has shown that doctors, priests and writers interpreted the pestilence as a divine punishment for sin, this study demonstrates how that belief could be exploited for rhetorical purposes. The rhetoric of pestilence emerges as a powerful contemplative tool urging readers to practise self-examination, penitence and a more active, strategic approach to death.

Item Type: Article
DOI/Identification number: 10.1080/0013838X.2016.1254477
Subjects: D History General and Old World > D History (General) > D111 Medieval History
P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Divisions: Faculties > Humanities > School of English
Depositing User: Tom Lawrence
Date Deposited: 20 Mar 2017 10:38 UTC
Last Modified: 29 May 2019 18:50 UTC
Resource URI: https://kar.kent.ac.uk/id/eprint/60961 (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)
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