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Prik of Conscience: Introduction


1 For this spelling of the title, see Part 7, line 1872, and below, pages 2–4. Robert E. Lewis and Angus McIntosh, Descriptive Guide, list ninety-seven manuscripts of the main version (see Boffey and Edwards, NIMEV 1193 and 3428), eighteen manuscripts of the Southern recension (what NIMEV 3429 calls the East Midland recension), two manuscripts of an abridged version (the Speculum huius vite , NIMEV 484), and various extracts in eight manuscripts (see NIMEV 3561). There are also six manuscripts of a Latin translation. The extracts are sometimes spliced into other works (such as the Cursor Mundi, ed. Morris; see below, 5.169–227 and 5.949–91) or appear independently in manu­script anthologies (such as the Thornton Manuscript, facsimile ed. by Brewer and Owen; see below, 1.64–178). Lewis and McIntosh provide extensive descriptions of the manuscripts, and Robert R. Raymo’s entry in the Manual of the Writings in Middle English provides additional biblio­graphical information on language, sources, and authorship (vol. 7, pp. 2268–70, 2486–92). By way of comparison to the Prik of Conscience, its nearest competition among vernacular poems in terms of manuscript survival is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (some sixty-four manuscripts); the (prose) Wycliffite Bible is found in about 200.

2 See the 1863 edition by Richard Morris of British Library Cotton Galba E.ix (a copy of the main version). Morris’ text is available electronically through the Corpus of Middle English and Verse from the University of Michigan. Dan Michel’s Ayenbite of Inwyt (ed. Morris), a text allied to and contemporary with the Prik of Conscience, fares somewhat better since it appears in the anthologies edited by Fernand Mossé, Handbook, pp. 221–29, and Elaine Treharne, Old and Middle English, pp. 494–97, even though it survives in just one manuscript. The Ayenbite is a treatise on sin and salvation translated from the French Somme des Vices et des Virtues (1279, also known as Somme le Roi; Chaucer incorporated parts of it in The Parson’s Tale).

3 From “An Envoy to Duke Humphrey,” lines 3401–14 from Book 9 of the Fall of Princes (vol. 3 of Henry Bergen’s edition). The invocation of John Gower and Ralph Strode, contemporaries of Chaucer, echoes Chaucer’s homage to the same two men at the end of Troilus and Criseyde (V.1856–57). Dares the Phrygian (sixth century), a supposed eyewitness to the Trojan war, was credited with an account in Latin of the war’s events. In the context of Lydgate’s “Envoy,” the Prik keeps august literary company.

4 Allen, Writings Ascribed, pp. 15, 371–79, 394–97; also see Morey, “Rolle, Richard.” The best study of Rolle is by Nicholas Watson, Richard Rolle. Some manuscripts name Robert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln from 1235 to 1253, as the author (see Lewis and McIntosh, Descriptive Guide, p. 3).

5 Cambridge, St. John's College 80 (D.5) translates “consciencie stimulus” as “þe key of knowyng.” The colophon of Chicago, Newberry Library 32.9 reads: “Here than endes the tretice alle / which that men Prik of Conscience kalle”; likewise London, British Library, MS Arundel 140 gives the English title without the Latin. The end of the invocation in London, British Library, MS Egerton 3245 reads: “To þe blisful trinite be don al reverens / In whos name I begyn þe prikil of consciens.” Some twenty-five main version manuscripts listed by Lewis and McIntosh, Descriptive Guide, repeat or slightly vary these naming schemes.

6 See Morey, Book and Verse, p. 181. Brampton’s Psalms are edited by Kreuzer, “Thomas Brampton’s Metrical Paraphrase.”

7 See Clarke and Dewhurst, Illustrated History of Brain Function, pp. 10–11.

8 See Morey, Book and Verse, pp. 56–83, and Nicholas Watson, “Censorship and Cultural Change.” Watson coins the term “vernacular theology” (p. 823) to characterize the efforts of many English writers in the fourteenth century who engaged theological subjects (broadly conceived) in their native language.

9 See Morey, Book and Verse, pp. 34–35, and Turville-Petre, Reading Middle English Literature, pp. 123–24. In London, British Library, MS Royal 17 C.xvii, an extract from the Prik of Conscience appears with John Myrc's Instructions for Parish Priests and Richard Maydestone's translation of the Seven Penitential Psalms.

10 Burrow, Medieval Writers, p. 20.

11 Burrow, Medieval Writers, p. 20.

12 An image of the beginning of Part 5 (fol. 59r) can be found on the Manuscripts of the West Midlands website sponsored by the University of Birmingham.

13 See pp. xxv–xxvi in Heaney’s introduction. In a brilliant meditation on language change, Heaney describes how a Celticism spoken by his aunt derives from the Old English verb þolian, “to suffer,” “to endure.”

The Prik of Conscience is widely known among scholars of medieval English literature as the poem existing in more manuscripts — some 130 — than any other Middle English poem.1 This fact is cited as evidence of the poem’s popularity, and the Prik of Conscience makes a cameo appearance in most histories of Middle English literature. Even so, the only modern edition before this one dates from the year that the Battle of Gettysburg was fought, and one looks in vain even for extracts from it in the major anthologies of Middle English.2 For many years the poem was attributed to the fourteenth-century mystic Richard Rolle, hermit of Hampole, who is best known for his prose works of devotion and for an English translation of the Psalter. Rolle’s lifespan (c. 1300–49) corresponds to the date of the poem's likely compo­sition, some manuscripts of the Prik of Conscience ascribe the poem to him, and it sometimes appears with authentic works by Rolle. John Lydgate was under that impression a century later, circa 1430, when he lists those authors — Virgil, Homer, Dares, Ovid, Chaucer, Gower, Strode, and Rolle — in comparison with whom his poetry falls short:
I nevir was aqueynted with Virgyle,
Nor with [the] sugryd dytees of Omer,
Nor Dares Frygius with his goldene style,
Nor with Ovyde, in poetrye moost entieer,
Nor with the souereyn balladys of Chauceer,
Which among alle that euere wer rad or songe
Excellyd al othir in our Englyssh tounge.

I can nat been a iuge in this mateer,
As I conceyve folwyng my fantasye,
In moral mateer ful notable was Goweer,
And so was Stroode in his philosophye.
In parfyt lyvyng, which passith poysye,
Richard Hermyte, contemplatyff of sentence,
Drowh in Ynglyssh the Prykke of Conscience.3
Hope Emily Allen showed the error of the attribution, but the association of Rolle’s name with the Prik of Conscience lent the poem a prestige and authority which may help to account for the extent of its circulation.4 As is so often the case, what people think happened is more important than what actually happened. The author remains unknown to us, but he was clearly conversant with a wide range of patristic and clerkly authority. The Prik of Conscience provides a fund of the kind of information — the learned substrate — that we can safely assume was well known to secular clerics and therefore to those members of a fourteenth-century English audience who cared about the world, the place of man in it, and the essential question of the human relationship to the divine. The work looks outward and upward, but also inward, as the title implies. When the poem is named in the manuscripts either the title or a colophon calls it Stimulus Conscientiae , and a subset of those manuscripts translates the phrase as “prick of conscience.”5 Plays on those words appear throughout the poem (e.g., Entre.330, 6.147, 6.567–68, 7.1769) to highlight the sting of remorse that can lead to repentance. The apostle Paul refers to the “stimulus carnis” — “sting of the flesh” — in 2 Corinthians 12:7, and the words “stimulus conscientiae” appear in commentaries on Psalm 31 by Pseudo-Augustine (PL 26:912D) and Alcuin (PL 100:577C) and in sermon 7 of Innocent III (PL 217:626B). The phrase “the prik of conscience” appears in stanza 20 of Thomas Brampton’s Penitential Psalms (part of Psalm 31), an English versification notable for its emphasis on personal sin and salvation.6 The title of the Ayenbite of Inwyt (“the again-biting of inner-intelligence”) invokes the same wordplay, and the word “inwytte” appears here in 5.1372, as an English cognate to the Latinate “Conscience.” In Part 6, the tenth pain of hell is “gnawyng withinne / Of conscience bytyng” (6.146-47). Just as the modern conception of “conscience” involves an ethical voice that is internal yet somehow also extra-personal, “inwit” combines emotional, intellectual, and socioreligious qualities where heart, mind, and memory intersect. Medieval medicine schematized these phenomena in various brain chambers (e.g., sensus communis, imaginativa, intellectus, memorativa) that successively reprocess experience.7 It is important to realize that the process is essentially two-way, in that mental and moral impulses can produce physical sensation. The mind-body continuum is an ancient construct, and Middle English expresses the moral component of that two-faced continuum as “inwit.”

The poem has a penitential program that highlights these psychosomatic qualities in the act of confession. In formal terms, securing forgiveness required the following five steps:
contritio cordis (contrition of the heart): one must feel genuinely sorry for the sin. This “prick of conscience” is the essential first step
confessio oris (confession of the mouth): one must speak the sin out loud, to a priest (see “shryfte of mouthe” [3.898])
penitentio (penance): one must undergo some physical punishment or sacrifice in recom­pense for the sin
restitutio (restitution): if possible, the sin must be made good (by returning stolen goods, for example)
absolutio (absolution): a priest must speak the words of forgiveness
The phrase “remors of conscience” is common in Middle English, and it refers to the initial sensation of compunction over having committed a sin. It has physical effects that can be felt by the individual and observed by others. Pandarus suspects that this sensation may account for Troilus’ malady in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, 1.554–57:
"Or hastow some remors of conscience,
And art now falle in som devocioun,
And wailest for thi synne and thin offence,
And hast for ferde caught attricioun."
“Attricioun” marks a milder form of contrition in the elaborate taxonomy of remorse. The Orchard of Syon makes the etymological connection between “pricking” and “biting”: “I haue preued hem wiþ tribulacioun . . . Þeer all þis profiteþ not, I geue a pricke or remors of conscience” (see Middle English Dictionary under attricioun and under remorse, from the Latin remordere 'to bite again'). The Prik of Conscience may be regarded as a prolegomenon that enables the physical, external steps that must follow the first, internal one. The sinner must first feel, then speak, and finally act. Confession is secured by another speech act, when a priest utters the words of absolution. The running title of the poem’s introduction is “entre” (entrance) because the reader is entering a verbal space that enables and requires physical action. In The Temple, George Herbert titled his opening poem “The Church-porch” for similar reasons. The attentive and contrite reader of the Prik of Conscience may thus begin to attain the “perfect living” envisaged by Lydgate.

Perfect living enables a good death. The day one dies is a personal doomsday, and thus we have one reason for the length of Part 5, on the ten tokens of Doomsday — the last judgment at the end of time, when souls and bodies are reconstituted and a new order begins. The personal is recapitulated in the general, just as the Harrowing of Hell prefigures the general resurrection (6.102–09). Much of the poem is built on the repetition of typological patterns that expose how Hebrew Scripture — the old law — is fulfilled in the New Testament, and how the literal microcosm will turn into the anagogical macrocosm. A remarkable and artistically unparalleled sign of the influence of the Prik is an early fifteenth-century stained-glass window in All Saints Church, North Street, York, where verses from the poem caption images of Doomsday (see 5.746 note).

The medium of the delivery, English, emulates the method and echoes the stated purpose of other works — such as the Cursor Mundi, the Lay Folks Mass Book, and the Northern Homily Cycle — that expound the means of salvation from various (Latin) books to those who understand only their native tongue.8 In lines 1866–79 of Part 7 the poet describes how the poem makes a reader susceptible to contrition by making the conscience “tender”:
In thir seven er sere materes drawen
Of sere bukes of whilk som er unknawen,
Namly til lewed men of England
That can noght bot Inglise undirstand.
Tharfor this tretice drawe I wald
In Inglise tung that may be cald
Prik of Conscience als men may fele,
For if a man it rede and understande wele
And the materes tharin til hert wil take
It may his conscience tendre make
And til right way of rewel bryng it bilyfe
And his hert til drede and mekenes dryfe
And til luf and yhernyng of heven blis
And to amende alle that he has done mys.

rule; quickly

yearning for
The Prik of Conscience is didactic, devotional, and encyclopedic, and as a kind of encyclo­pedia it represents its subject matter as fact, not fiction. Since God is the source of all created things and since the Bible is a kind of owner’s manual to describe and govern that divinely-ordered creation, an author like the Prik of Conscience-poet was at liberty to address all manner of subjects, be they scientific, geographic, historic, or what we would construe more narrowly as biblical or theological. Again, since everything is created and governed by God, these categories were more capacious for a medieval audience than for a modern one. When biblical and secular subjects intersect, we are more used to the polemical debates characteristic of the Reformation in the fifteenth century, to say nothing of our own time, whereas the intellectual climate of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries can fairly be generalized as more liberal. Medieval minds were inquisitive, and they sought answers in all of the sources available to them, be they classical, scriptural, folkloric, or empiric. Their strategy did not disarm the text; it sought to arm the reader.

We would be mistaken to paint too rosy a picture of this climate, the conditions for which can be traced to the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, the council that more than any other encouraged the production of materials in the vernacular to spread knowledge of Christianity and the means of salvation to the population at large. These tools of pastoral care — pastoralia — were always filtered by the doctrine and dogma of the Church. The council came at the end of Innocent III’s papacy, and its injunctions were promulgated in England by Archbishop John Pecham’s Lambeth Constitutions of 1281 (in Latin) and later by Archbishop (of York) John Thoresby, who charged John Gaytryge to translate his instructions for the people into what became the Lay Folks Catechism (1357), thus giving vernacular English expression to the main points of the Faith. In the move from Latin to English works we see the bridge from the clergy to the masses, from the “lered” to the “lewed,” and this alliterating word-pair became a leit-motif throughout Middle English literature, including the Prik of Conscience (see, e.g., Entre.107, 5.419, 5.1253).9 Pope Innocent’s De miseria condicionis humane (On the Misery of the Human Condition) was very well known throughout the Middle Ages, and it is itself a prominent source in Part 1 of the Prik (see note to 1.128–29).

Structurally, the Prik of Conscience has much in common with biblical commentaries in that a verse from Scripture or from a classical or patristic authority (the lemma) is quoted, translated, and then glossed. The order of the verses can appear to be random, but there is often some detail or theme that connects one verse to the next. Generically, the Prik resembles biblical distinctiones, collections of biblical verses united by common association, made by university students primarily as study and preaching aids. A vernacular parallel is a work like Langland’s Piers Plowman, which hangs its narrative on a sequence of Latin quotations. The author of the Prik of Conscience may have owned, or compiled for himself, a florilegium of Latin texts that he used as an exemplar for his English poem. Alternatively, he may have drawn his material over time from a variety of sources that he incorporated as it suited him.

Perusing the Index of Proper Names and Terms may be the best introduction to the poem’s content and preoc­cupations: Alexander the Great, the queen of the Amazons, Gog and Magog, Maimonides, the planet Venus, etc. The range of allusion is extensive, but eclectic; usually conventional, but at times addressing a more finely grained theological point such as the equality of the heavenly reward (4.54, 747 ff.) and the inauthenticity of relics (5.1237–52). Because the Prik of Conscience is highly derivative it has been relegated to the second or even third rank of literature. But in light of the more liberal standards for the literary that have prevailed for at least the last twenty years, we appear to have reached what J. A. Burrow in 1982 called “a more distant, anthropological view of Western civilization.”10 We are thus the “future readers” of the Prik of Conscience that Burrow envisions, and it is time for the poem to be “reab­sorb[ed] . . . into the great spectacle of literature.”11


New Haven, Beinecke Library, Osborn a.13, a parchment manuscript circa 1450, 139 folia in an anglicana formata script with catchwords and signatures, missing the first leaf (the first 32 lines), leaf 55 (approximately 64 lines), and probably two leaves (approximately 128 lines) between folia 138 and 139, though the sense does not suffer. These deficiencies are supplied from Morris’ edition of Cotton Galba E.ix, another copy of the main version. Cotton Galba and Osborn are similar, but spelling and vocabulary often differ, especially in rhyming words. Each sometimes omits a couplet that the other includes.

The poem is written in a single column, 32 (sometimes 33) lines per page, with modest two- and four-line initials in blue, gold, and red, and rubricated section headings (nonlineated and here appearing in italics). The manuscript is currently in a seventeenth-century leather binding.12

One of the owners of the manuscript, Walter W. Greg of Trinity College Cambridge, wrote some notes on the history of the manuscript on several of the front flyleaves. The earliest recorded owner was John Ives, from whom Tobias Beauclerk bought the manuscript on March 6, 1777. Other owners were Sir Thomas Phillipps in 1836 (recorded as Phillipps MS 8343), Walter W. Greg in 1911, and the last private owner was James M. Osborn, who gave his collection to the Beinecke Library at Yale in 1976.

Given the number of extant manuscripts of the Prik of Conscience an editorial reconstruction would be most unwieldy. A single-text edition, such as this one, honors the work of the medieval poet and scribe who is not only a compiler but also a reader of his manuscript sources.


Only minor emendations, enclosed in brackets, have been made to clarify the sense; textual notes explain the reasoning behind the modifications. Errors become more common toward the end, in Part 7, when the scribe may have become fatigued or pressed for time. The manuscript edits itself at numerous points with insertions, deletions, and notes on how to transpose lines into their proper order (e.g., 5.335). I have maintained paraph marks found in the manuscript, here indicated by the pilcrow sign (¶), as well as the hierarchy of two- and four-line initials. The manuscript supplies no punctuation apart from idiosyncratic slash marks at the end of some lines, and it rarely capitalizes any word apart from the first word of each line, the name “Eve” (1.114, 120), “Inwytte” in 5.1372, and, inconsistently, the name “Rome.” In order to accommodate the expectations and eyes of modern readers this edition capitalizes other proper names, including “Christianity,” “God, “Christ,” and (in a dubious gesture of consistency) “Antichrist.”


The punctuation supplied in this edition marks sense units, and I have tried to respect the integrity of couplets by rarely punctuating between them. Readers will find that individual lines and couplets are often syntactically self-sufficient and that a brief pause is required at the end of almost every line. To supply commas at each point would be otiose and would detract from the poem’s rhythmic and aural qualities. What moderns construe as repetition and dilation the medieval audience recognized as the means to establish and emphasize the main ideas of the poem. Medial punctuation is rarely called for (Entre.229, 1.218, 1.539, 2.137, and 5.524 are exceptions). Readers are encouraged to insert or remove punctuation marks as they see fit, keeping in mind that only the paraph marks have manuscript authority.

The punctuation of Latin quotations is supplied to indicate sense units, and one should note how the quotations themselves organize and punctuate the poem. Quotation marks enclose the translations from Latin and also mark direct speech.


This edition lineates each part individually in order to retain the sense of a seven-part structure, a structure that rubrics and running titles support. Morris lineated his edition consecutively through each part, from 1 to 9624. His numbers appear here in square brackets to ease reference, since all previous studies of the poem cite his edition. Rubrics are not lineated, but the Latin quotations are. These quotations are oddly formatted in that the line sometimes breaks in the middle of a word.


I have followed the METS practice of using the modern alphabet for the spelling of Middle English words. Thus the insular þ (thorn) and õ (yogh) are regularized to “th” and (usually) “gh” (though sometimes “y”), and I have modified u/v and i/j distinctions in accordance with modern usage since, for example, the “u” in a word like “trauayl” (2.133) is almost certainly pronounced as /v/. Hence the word is printed here as “travayl.” Similarly, manuscript soiourne is here printed as sojourne, which more clearly reflects Middle English pronunciation. Given the scribal interchangeability of i/y I have followed the manuscript spelling. As is typical with medieval manuscripts, spelling is not consistent, and the same word may be variously spelled even within the same line. Exigencies of rhyme can also dictate a spelling, even of proper names as when Job appears as “Jope” or “Joope,” each time rhyming with “hope” (4.103, 5.1052, 6.760). By the same token the corresponding rhyme often gives a clue to understanding the other word in the couplet. The poet also modifies spellings to achieve internal rhyme, as for example with “oon” and “moon” in 6.402–03.

The manuscript often divides words that moderns would combine (e.g., “a boute,” “a way,” “for don” (verb), “hym self,” “in to,” “mon kynde,” “þere of,” “þer to,” “þer wiþ,” “up on,” “where of,” “who so,” “wiþ in,” “wiþ oute”). This edition combines them to ease reading. Finally, I have followed METS practice in placing an accent on final –e when it is given full syllabic value, as in "Trinité," which rhymes with “be,” and not “wytte” (Entre.19–21).


It is the nature of glosses that they target the nearest equivalent in modern English usage. Doing so often ignores the historical evolution — and extinction — of words, and recourse should always be made to the Middle English Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary to trace etymologies and conventions of usage. For example, a gloss may have to supply a different, usually stronger, connotation (“harm” in 2.289). The semantic evolution of a word like “mall” (6.145) from “large hammer” to the commercial enterprise known today is also instructive. Modern cognates have often drifted semantically to the extent that the cognate is misleading: the primary meaning of “chymmenay” (5.375) is “furnace”; “dome” is “judgment” not “doom”; “aukeward” (2.592) connotes mental, not just physical, impairment. One can even debate whether a word is modern or not; “thole” (3.551, 4.269, and passim) may be considered archaic, but it appears in modern collegiate dictionaries and its use is championed by Seamus Heaney in his translation of Beowulf.13


The dialect is distinctly northern with the characteristic “a” for “o” (e.g. “sal” for “shold”; “a” or “an” for “one”; “wald” for “wold”; “aught” for “ought”). Some Old English inflections survive, as in the genitive singular “Goddes” (for “God’s) and in the formation of the plural of some nouns in -en (e.g., “hatereden” for “hatreds”; “heuenen” for “heavens”). The geminated plural for goats appears (“geet” in 5.2022; compare the early Middle English “gayte” for “goat” and “layte” for “light”). Pronouns show both Old English (“her,” “here,” and “hore” for “their”; “hem” for “them”; “hire” for “her”) and Scandinavian forms (“thay” for “they”; “thair” for “their”). “Thowe” is singular; “yoe,” “yhou,” and “yhe” are plural. In 7.1377 the word “myche” appears with an Old Norse spelling (see note) and in line 5.1706 the northern form of the third person feminine singular pronoun appears (“se” from Old English “seo,” meaning “she”). Infinitives appear in -en, sometimes introduced by “to” (e.g., Entre.172).

The hand of the scribe sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish “e” from “o,” and they are often interchanged (e.g., “thonne” for “then”; “tho” for “the”) perhaps because these sounds were very close in his dialect.


Nearly everything in the Prik of Conscience can be found in similar form elsewhere in Latin, Middle English, or other medieval vernacular works. It is one thing to recall having seen something before and to say that it is commonplace or conventional, and quite another to cite chapter and verse for every quotation, theme, and motif. There are many mansions in our father’s house, and also many doors. The more time one spends with a medieval text such as this, the more one realizes that everything is connected and that medieval poets, monks, scribes, and readers shared a fund of lore accessed by means as various, though perhaps not as technically advanced, as ours. Spending a few minutes with the facsimile of the Biblia Latina cum Glossa Ordinaria (ed. Froehlich and Gibson, and a text named by our poet as one of his sources in Part 5) will convince anyone of how they controlled complex bodies of material with sophistication. While the author certainly must have known complete versions of some works, it would be a mistake to suppose that the author had access to every one of the works cited in the notes. He was almost certainly drawing primarily on one or more florilegia of sacred and patristic texts, or even on commonplace books and notes — the reportationes — from university lectures on biblical and theological subjects. The annotations in this edition can merely supply a toehold and point the way for more extensive investigations. Given that this is the first edition since 1863, and the first to provide annotations beyond Morris’ spare textual notes, those investigations should be rich and should reconnect a central text to the mainstream of Middle English, and indeed English, literature.

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