Medieval Studies The Prick of Conscience
by
James H. Morey
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0167

Introduction

The Prick of Conscience (PC) is a mid-14th-century poem of over 9,000 lines in octosyllabic couplets that survives in more manuscripts than any other Middle English poem. These facts signal its wide readership and its importance as a compendium of religious knowledge, natural history, and penitential practice in late medieval England. The author is anonymous, though early in its critical history it was attributed to the famous 14th-century mystic and psalm translator Richard Rolle. Notably, John Lydgate and John Bale attributed the poem to Rolle, some manuscripts name him as the author, and the poem sometimes appears with Rolle’s genuine works. The original dialect was northern, perhaps that spoken around Yorkshire, and a southern (sometimes called “East Midland”) recension exists. The Prick of Conscience inspires humility and dread, but more optimistically it provides English readers with the information necessary to understand the relationship between the human and the divine. The regular four-stress rhythm generates a strong sense of movement, and the poet regularly transitions from book to book with summaries of the previous book’s contents and anticipations of the next. Overall, the poem progresses from man debased to man glorified, from earth to heaven, and from death to the afterlife. The conclusion of the prologue (the “entre,” or introduction, of some 350 lines) repeats the headings to its seven books. Book 1, Of Man and his Wretchedness (approximately 550 lines) and Book 2, Of the World’s Unstableness (approximately 700 lines), rely on Pope Innocent III’s influential De Miseria Condicionis Humane (Lewis 1978, cited under Sources and Analogues). Book 3, Of Death and of the Pain that with Him Goes (approximately 950 lines) and Book 4, Of Purgatory where Souls are Cleansed of their Folly (approximately 1,100 lines), move from the contemptus mundi tradition to the difficult work of healing the soul, and derive principally from the Anglo-Norman Les Peines de Purgatorie (Relihan 1978, cited under Sources and Analogues). The last three books progress from Earth (Book 5, Of the Day of Doom and of the Tokens That Before Shall Come [approximately 2,300 lines]) to Hell (Book 6, The Pains of Hell [approximately 1,050 lines]) and finally to Heaven (Book 7, The Joys of Heaven [approximately 1,950 lines]). The length of Book 5 has been taken to reflect an inartful and gloomy obsession with Judgment, but it should be noted that Book 7, on a much more positive subject, is comparably long, and that the overall trajectory of the work is upward.

General Overview

Most scholarship on the Prick of Conscience has been devoted to manuscript and source study (see Studies of Manuscripts, Early Printings, and Stained Glass). The critical reception of PC has been, on the whole, negative, with numerous comments lamenting its tedium. In its defense, however, PC is no worse, if no better, than other works in the large genre of Middle English catechetical literature. A work of this length was surely read, or otherwise consulted, in pieces for devotional purposes or for preaching. As the manuscript and printing histories show, PC was routinely excerpted. That a medieval cleric or layperson would read such works straight through, as moderns read novels, is unlikely. Thompson 1998 and Heist 1952 provide general introductions to this learned world and its preoccupation with historical contingency and Doomsday. More focused treatments can be found under Studies of Sources and Literary Relations. Latin quotations from various sources—sometimes identified, although at times incorrectly—appear throughout the text. They are translated, and provide a framework of learned authorities on which the poet builds the doctrinal exposition (see Sources and Analogues). The author expresses the need to make these materials available in English to “lewed men” (see lines 336–339 and 9545–9564) as a kind of antidote to the proliferation of popular vanities and trifles (lines 183–184). PC is one instance of the vast production of pastoralia, or works intended for religious edification and salvation of souls, that derive from the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 (Boyle 1985). One of the council’s decrees (beginning “Omnis utriusque sexus fidelis . . .”) stipulates yearly confession of all communicants, thus requiring a clergy able to deliver doctrinal instruction intelligibly and a laity capable of receiving it, presumably in the vernacular. A work in the same tradition is the Ayenbite of Inwit, which also categorizes sin (drawing upon the Somme le Roi, as does PC) and explains the means of salvation to a lay audience (see Morris 1866 and Gradon 1979, cited under Sources and Analogues). This work is sometimes confused with PC and it dates from the same time (1340), but it exists in only a single manuscript (London, BL Arundel 57; see Dan Michel of Northgate’s Ayenbite of Inwyt, cited under Facsimiles) and has a named author (Dan Michel of Northgate).

  • Boyle, Leonard E. “The Fourth Lateran Council and Manuals of Popular Theology.” In The Popular Literature of Medieval England. Edited by Thomas J. Heffernan, 30–43. Tennessee Studies in Literature 28. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985.

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    A useful guide to a huge subject, with a schematic diagram of the genre of pastoralia on p. 38.

  • Heist, William W. The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday. East Lansing: Michigan State College Press, 1952.

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    Overview of the medieval tradition and a discussion of the version used in PC (pp. 131–133).

  • Thompson, John J. The Cursor Mundi: Poem, Texts and Contexts. Medium Ævum Monographs, n.s. 19. Oxford: Society for the Study of Mediaeval Languages and Literature, 1998.

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    See especially pages 88–95. Discusses the combination of material from PC in a Cursor Mundi manuscript (London, BL, Additional 36983), and notes how the Latin quotations are omitted. Also discusses other manuscripts and themes (Doomsday and the coming of Antichrist from Book 5 of PC.)

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