15.01.20, Hanna and Wood, eds., Richard Morris's Prick of Conscience

Main Article Content

Henry Ansgar Kelly

The Medieval Review 15.01.20

Hanna, Ralph, and Sarah Wood. Richard Morris's Prick of Conscience: A Corrected and Amplified Reading Text. Early English Text Society, Original Series, 342. Oxford: Oxfrd University Press, 2013. Pp. lxxxv, 413. ISBN: 9780199680993 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Henry Ansgar Kelly
University of California, Los Angeles

It has long been a scandal that The Prick of Conscience (PC), the most popular English literary work of the Middle Ages, elaborately edited by Richard Morris in 1863, went out of print long ago and copies are scarce. UCLA had none when I arrived here fifty years ago, and I had to send away to get it copied. There has been no new edition until the recent TEAMS production: Prick of Conscience, edited by James H. Morey in 2012 from a single manuscript, namely the one at Yale (listed as MV [Main Version] 57 by Robert E. Lewis and Angus McIntosh, A Descriptive Guide to the Manuscripts of the Prick of Conscience, 1982). Now in this EETS volume, Ralph Hanna and Sarah Wood have updated Morris's edition, with Hanna being in charge of linguistic and textual matters, and Wood attending to sources and influences.

There is something of a contradiction in the presentation of this volume. In the introduction the editors say, "At the centre of this book sits, not our original edition of PC, but a corrected and expanded reprinting of Richard Morris's 1863 edition" (xiv)." But earlier, under Acknowledgments, they tell us that working from Morris's text proved impractical, and therefore they agreed with Anne Hudson that "a new edition detached from Morris's print represented the only proper way forward." The emphasis here is on the word "print," but it is not clear how the resulting text is still considered to be Morris's.

The new editors at first preserve Morris's line numbering, in spite of dropped or added lines here and there, in the admirable way in which verses of the Bible and lines of Chaucer's verse and prose remain uniform through multiple editions (and contrary to the shocking anarchy that prevails for Shakespeare's works); but for some unexplained reason, they do so only for the first two thirds of the poem's 9600 lines, and discontinue the adjustment for the last third, from line 6060 onwards: from there to the end, they are three or four lines behind Morris's lineation. (Morey, for his part, renumbers each of the seven parts, though he keeps us notified at sufficient intervals of Morris's numbers.) The English verse lines are tetrameters (or octosyllabics), rhyming in couplets, but frequently Latin rubrics are included in the main text and counted as one or more lines.

PC is preserved in its original northern version (MV) in almost 100 manuscripts, and the southern recension (SR) in nearly twenty manuscripts; all are listed, with around sixty other appearances, in Appendix 3 (378-383). Hanna and Wood say that they describe this appendix in their introduction (lxxiv), but I do not see where. They update the Lewis-McIntosh accounting of 97 MV copies, and add two more (without numbering them): fragments at St. Paul's Cathedral (no further description) and two folios at Notre Dame. To the eighteen SR copies they add another instance: fragments of a folio at Ushaw College, Durham.

The nine manuscripts of the main version used in this edition are fully described, followed by a discussion of the poet's identity, date, and dialect. Five manuscripts ascribe the poem to Richard Rolle, and three to Robert Grosseteste. Morris accepted the Rolle attribution, since discounted; but Hanna and Wood conclude that it was probably written during the time of Rolle's literary activity, that is, the second quarter of the fourteenth century (xxxvi; on p. xiii they call it a "mid-fourteenth-century" poem). The author was from North Yorkshire, obviously a cleric with good Latin reading skills. The account of dialectal forms (xxxix-xlvi) can be supplemented with the extensive examples given by Morris (xii-xxx). In the present volume, after a treatment of the poet's verse forms, his sources are discussed. The most important of these is an Anglo-Norman work, Les Peines de Purgatoire. Of the Latin sources, a prominent one is the Compendium veritatis theologice of the Dominican friar Hugh Ripelin, prior at Strasbourg in the 1260s. It is heavily indebted to his contemporary, Thomas Aquinas, and in England it is usually attributed to him, as in PC in the section on purgatory (ll. 3948-3951), under the name De veritate theologie. Morris makes no identification here, and Morey misidentifies it as Thomas's Summa theologica. Just above, line 3944, the poet refers to the writers on purgatory Innocent and "Austyn"; for the latter, Morey has Ostyene, and Hanna-Wood emend Austyn to Hostyen; Morey guesses that the references are to Innocent III and Augustine, while Wood-Hanna rightly identify the canonists Innocent IV and Hostiensis. The Raymund of line 3946 is not Llull, as Morey thinks, but Pennafort, as our editors make clear.

In addition to many other sources, carefully detailed here, the editors find it likely that the poet drew on a glossed Latin Bible; and a notable liturgical source was the Office of the Dead (lviii-lix). I should note that the formula for marking the forehead with ashes on Ash Wednesday--"Memento, homo, quod cinis es, et in cinerem reverteris" (PC, ll. 422-423)--agrees with the text of the Arsenal MS of the Sarum Missal, ca. 1300 (see Legg's edition, 51). Morris thought that Cursor Mundi served the poet as a source, but the present editors see no sure sign of such use, though they acknowledge that he was probably familiar with it.

The introduction concludes with an extensive discussion of textual descent. The bibliography follows (lxxv-lxxxv), but, confusingly, the works cited earlier under Abbreviations (x-xi) are not included here. The text of PC (3-262) is followed by a textual commentary (263-86) and a long literary commentary (289-366), concentrating on sources and analogues. Appendix 1 gives variants of the Wellesley manuscript, MV 96 (lxix, lxxii), and Appendix 2 collates the first 500 lines of the so-called General Tradition (lxxi). After the listing of manuscripts in Appendix 3 there is a glossary, followed by an index of quotations and allusions and ending with an index of proper names.

The author of PC divided his work into seven parts, dealing with 1) man's wretchedness, 2) the evils of the world, 3) death, 4) purgatory, 5) doomsday, 6) hell, and 7) heaven. Unfortunately, the present edition does not give us easy access to the contents of the poem, and it is here that I must express a criticism of the volume. It is offered as "a reading text," but, in comparison to Morris's presentation, it is extremely reader-unfriendly. Morris has an engaging account of the contents (xxx-xxxiii), followed by the elaborate table of contents from one of the southern recension manuscripts, SR 15, now at Princeton (xxxiv-xli). In addition, on every page of the text, he tells us what part of the poem we are in, gives frequent synopses in the margins, and produces a different heading on each page highlighting the content to be found there. In contrast, the Hanna-Wood edition includes no indications of parts, no synopses (except for a few notes from MS A, London, British Library Add. MS 33995 = MV 44), and a single running head, THE PRICK OF CONSCIENCE. On turning every page, we are assured, twice, that we are still reading THE PRICK OF CONSCIENCE, THE PRICK OF CONSCIENCE, 500 times in all. A wasted opportunity. This, I suppose, is not entirely the fault of the editors but largely of current EETS policies, since these aids and conveniences have been abandoned since the 1920s. Perhaps it is a matter of "the esthetics of the page," or a feeling that the texts should not be made too easy for users! I hope, however, that future editors will ask to reinstate them. But in the meantime, I can only urge that Morris's original edition be reprinted in an inexpensive format so that new readers interested in exploring PC can do their browsing in Morris, and, when they find something of interest, check it against Hanna and Wood for the fine details. (Another complaint against EETS: the gold lettering on the brown volumes readily flakes off, and is not easily legible even when intact.)

Apart from its great linguistic interest, PC is chiefly valuable not for any literary merit but for its devotional and theological content, and this edition has made great strides over Morris (and Morey) in explaining where various notions came from and how they resemble, or not, similar themes found elsewhere. The treatment of purgatory (part 4) provides an interesting example. PC draws upon Ripelin's treatise for the Thomistic doctrine that by divine dispensation some souls spend time not in the common underground place of purgation but in various places on earth, to commune with the living. PC adds the idea, perhaps for the sake of rhyme, that these earthly stints can take place during the day or night:

"For in the common stede some er noght ay,

Bot er here punyst, outher nyght or day (ll. 2878-2879)."

We recognize here the concept reported by the ghost of King Hamlet in Shakespeare's play. The whole of part 4 of PC was published in a separate booklet by Robert Wyer, ca. 1532-34, as The Little Book of Purgatory, from one of the manuscripts of the southern recension now in the Huntington Library in San Marino (SR 18). He also published parts 1-3 under the title of A New Treatise Divided in Three Parties (here, 382-383).

We should all be grateful to Hanna and Wood for the intense labor they have expended upon this important work. Their edition will remain the last word on the poem for a long time to come.

Article Details

Author Biography

Henry Ansgar Kelly

University of California, Los Angeles