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“Everyday Apocalypse: Middle English Literature and Climate Catastrophe,”Shannon Gayk, Indiana University
Premodern texts and art often understood the world as bookended by catastrophes: precariously surviving since nature’s corruption after the Fall while biding its time until the coming Apocalypse. The floods, fires, storms, plague, and pestilence that medieval people experienced in their own time both pointed backward to the original degradation of the natural order and forward to the world’s inevitable end. My ongoing book project, Apocalyptic Ecologies, focuses what was at stake in how late medieval literature and art represented natural disasters as exception, as disorder, as in need of an interpretive framework. For this Newberry Seminar, I would like to share one of the central chapters of this book, “Everyday Apocalypse,” which examines the apocalyptic rhetoric and forms used to explain catastrophic fires, storms, and floods in late-medieval drama and sermon literature (such as in Reason’s sermon in Piers Plowman, which cites pride as the cause of both plague and a strong storm). This paper explores the ways in which environmental disaster was interpreted as historical repetition, as a sign of judgment, as foreshadowing future events, and as apocalyptic in both of its key senses (destructive and revelatory).