Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
13.09.43, Morey, ed. Prik of Conscience

13.09.43, Morey, ed. Prik of Conscience

The Prik of Conscience, whose author remains unknown to us, survives in whole or part in over one hundred manuscripts. That is far more than any other Middle English poem, including the Canterbury Tales, which is runner-up with 64 surviving manuscripts; certainly more than the ultra-canonical Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which survives in a single, much-celebrated manuscript (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x); and even more than Piers Plowman, a poem notorious for its complex manuscript tradition, which is extant in just over 50 manuscripts (1, n. 1). Yet while the Canterbury Tales, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Piers Plowman have been published in numerous modern editions and translations, before James H. Morey published his recent TEAMS edition of the text, the Prik of Conscience had not seen publication since 1863 (9). That was 150 years ago--as Morey points out in this introduction, the same year as the Battle of Gettysburg (1). To be blunt, it is embarrassing that the Prik of Consicience, a poem whose manuscript tradition suggests how popular it was with medieval audiences, has been so long neglected by scholars of the Middle Ages, and Morey has performed a great service in preparing this edition, especially because it is so affordable and accessible to students.

As scholars of the Prik of Conscience have noted, its interests are far less literary than the other texts I mention above; it is primarily a didactic text, its aim being to teach "lewed men and unkunnande / That con no Latyn undurstande" to cultivate rich spiritual interior lives, to avoid sin, and to fear God (18). The text's title (which is the English translation used in some manuscripts of the Latin title, Stimulus Conscientiae, given in other manuscripts) owes itself to these goals; the author hopes that, when audiences "this boke here or rede / That shal pryck her soule withinne" (2, 18). The Prik of Conscience shares this goal with the wealth of texts written in response to Pope Innocent III's twenty-first canon from the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, which mandated annual private confession for all Christians who had reached the age of reason. This decree required of Christians a sense of how to examine one's conscience and how to make a confession, practices dependent upon a general comprehension of the faith. Many lay uneducated Christians did not possess such knowledge, and thus did Innocent's decree inspire numerous religious texts. Few (if any) of these works are in the canon as it has been most narrowly defined, but they are increasingly represented in series like TEAMS and Exeter Medieval Texts and Studies, which have published editions of many them. Such series admirably push at the margins of the canon and notions of what texts are worthy of study in the classroom, where the canon holds a particular gatekeeping power.

If it seems odd that a text whose survival in so many manuscripts attests to its importance is so late in seeing publication in a new edition, consider that its cumbersome manuscript tradition has effectively acted as editorial repellant. Even for a series like TEAMS, which publishes editions representing a single manuscript copy of a text, the work of choosing which manuscript to use is daunting and of great consequence. Morey's approach to this work is particularly mindful; his efficient introduction provides some context for the poem without upstaging it, and he hews closely to his source manuscript, intervening only to make only very minor emendations and to compensate for the few missing folios. The text itself is not over-glossed; novice readers of Middle English will be asked to stretch their abilities a bit but will benefit from it, and the rhyme and meter of the poem will surely help them along. The explanatory notes may also leave novices looking for more help with the text's narrative, as these notes usually (though not always) focus instead on revealing the network of sources on which the Prik of Conscience draws. However, more advanced readers may find the notes particularly helpful in this regard. If this is indeed the case, then Morey's index of biblical references and index of proper names and terms (which also includes text titles)--which together map something of the impressive web of relationships between the Prik of Conscience and other texts--will be an extra boon.

I regularly teach Middle English religious texts. These, I tell my students, are some of the first popular texts written in English--the first written for more than just educated, elite audiences. I look forward to reading the Prik of Conscience, a text whose manuscript tradition suggests it was among the most popular of popular texts, with them. But Morey's text will prove valuable beyond the classroom, I am sure; as the newest edition of the Prik of Conscience by a century and a half, it will no doubt serve as a useful scholarly resource as well as a pedagogical one.