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Death in Medieval English Literature

Explore how Medieval English literature deals with the theme of death. For real life context, the article could examine the devastating impact of the bubonic plague on not just England, but the whole of Europe. The quick spread and constant recurrences of the Black Death (as well as the high casualties) spurred contemplations about death, mortality, and religion. Examples of works that capture the anxiety of impending death are “Gawain and the Green Knight” (and most tales involving King Arthur’s court), “The York Play of the Crucifixion,” and the morality play “Everyman.”

What do these stories say about how one should spend their time before death? Why is there an emphasis on urgency? In stories where death is personified, what is its true nature?

  • I'm not sure if you would like to investigate the apocalyptic fervor that arose in the wake of the plague in Europe, but if you are interested in investigating the history of how the plague contributed to anxieties evident in Medieval literature some good background information may be found in Norman Cohn's Pursuit of the Millenium. It may be a bit later than the period you're looking at but it is a good read. I also think that apocalyptic thought is behind the texts you cite, so some investigation in this area may prove helpful. Such a fascinating topic with so many possibilities. – margo 5 years ago
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