Black Death literature inspires academic to write debut novel

New fiction explores the parallels between the 14th century and the environmental disaster that may lie ahead

June 16, 2016
Pile of skulls and bones in French catacombs
Source: iStock
The events of the 14th century forced writers to confront 'the ever-presence of death'

A lecturer at Anglia Ruskin has just sold a debut novel inspired by her research into the literature produced at the time of the Black Death.

Helen Marshall, who was recently appointed lecturer in creative writing and publishing, gained a PhD in medieval studies at the University of Toronto and a World Fantasy Award for her second collection of short stories, Gifts for the One Who Comes After, before taking up a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Oxford.  

There she studied “14th-century communities of book-producers, just before and after Chaucer”, she said, and notably an anonymous poem called The Prick of Conscience, which she described as “a guide to caring for your soul in preparation for death.

Many scholars think its popularity was due to the rise of Black Death, she told Times Higher Education. Much of the clergy died in the initial onslaught, so it was used to train up new members, but also adopted by lay people to think about the afterlife and acknowledge their own mortality.”  

In embarking on her novel, Everything that is Born, Dr Marshall knew that she “wanted to draw links between the sense of global catastrophe many people feel today, due to things like climate change, and the ecological and disease-oriented disasters that were happening in the 14th century – a sense of the world on the edge of collapse when everything was changing profoundly”.

The events of the book, which she characterised as “weird fiction”, take place in “an Oxford of the near future further on in the process of ecological collapse”.

One of the major characters, like her, is “a woman doing research on the spread of the Black Death”, so “constant parallels are being drawn throughout. There is an exploration of what went on in the past which informs the way the people perceive the catastrophes happening in the present.”

Medieval literature, Dr Marshall said, is “far more invested in acknowledging the ever-presence of death…We have a tendency to ignore death and denaturalise it, push it out of the way. There is something to be said for being able to confront it more directly.”

Everything that is Born also draws on her personal experience at the age of 17 when her father suffered a major head injury and she and her sister were largely left to cope on their own. This has made her fascinated by how people “accept that something awful is happening and deal with trauma”.

She explores these themes through the story of a 17-year-old girl who, after her sister drowns in a storm, decides to steal the body from the morgue so she can find out for herself what dying means.

Now that her novel has been signed up by Random House Canada, Dr Marshall plans to work on the final edits and deliver the completed manuscript over the summer.

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