Back to top

Item 33, Stimulus Consciencie Minor: Introduction


1 Unlike the Compendium itself, the French translation has been printed in a modern edition; see Michler, Le Somme Abregiet de Théologie.

2 Pery’s copy was London, British Library MS Additional 10053, witnessed by the colophon to Stimulus Consciencie Minor in that manuscript.

3 For a medieval explanation of the Ember days, see GL 1:139–40; see also Duffy, Stripping of the Altars, p. 41.

Origin, Genre, and Themes

Surviving in more than 120 manuscripts, as well as in a Latin trans­lation and an early print, The Prick of Conscience was the most popular Middle English verse text. Its popularity owed much to its vivid imagery, learned foundation, and comprehensive treat­ment of sin and the afterlife. Preachers likely appreciated it as a bountiful source of ma­terial for homilies. But since its seven books run to over nine thousand lines, brevity could not have been considered part of its appeal. The Prick of Conscience was composed in northern England during the middle decades of the fourteenth century, and several abridgments and summaries appeared shortly thereafter. One of these is the text presented here, the Stimulus Consciencie Minor (or “Shorter Prick of Conscience”), which was probably written no later than 1380.

The complete Prick of Conscience relies on a number of Latin sources, including Augustine’s City of God, Honorius of Autun’s Elucidarium, and the Meditationes piissime attributed to St. Ber­nard. But perhaps its most important source is Pope Innocent III’s De miseria humane condi­tionis (On the Misery of the Human Condition, also known as De contemptu mundi), a widely influ­ential text whose vivid images and forceful rhetoric attracted readers for centuries. Chaucer’s translation of De miseria humane conditionis does not survive, but Innocent’s text helped foster a wide variety of writing in the contemptus mundi tradition, and its residual influence can be seen in the Stimulus Consciencie Minor. The three books of De miseria humane conditionis discuss the wretched beginnings, conduct, and end of human life, a threefold structure that appears here in lines 345–432. These lines treat the human body as mere matter, “a sake full of fylthe pryvye / That over is coveryd with a skyne” (lines 363–64), and seek to shock the audience out of complacent worldliness. The approach is the same adopted by Chaucer’s Pardoner, albeit without the winking irony: flamboyant rhetoric in the service of sober moralism.

Stimulus Consciencie Minor relies on The Prick of Conscience for the first 424 lines. After that point the poem is based on other sources, and it follows the Compendium theologice veritatis of Hugh Ripelin of Strasburg from line 648 to the end of the poem. Hugh Ripelin was a Dominican, and wrote his Compendium between 1250 and 1264. The Com­pendium circu­lated widely, was printed several times in the fifteenth century, and was fully translated into French.1 As its title suggests, Hugh’s Compendium is a compilation of Christian doctrine that treats the nature of God, sin, Christ, the sacraments, and the Last Judgment. A source for the intervening section of Stimulus Consciencie Minor, lines 425–648, has not yet been iden­tified, and these lines may be based on a hodgepodge of Hugh’s Compendium, other Latin manuals for priests, and meditations on the Passion.

Though stitched together out of these various sources, Stimulus Consciencie Minor follows a recognizably logical sequence of topics. It begins by considering the three possible desti­nations of the soul after death — hell, purgatory, and heaven — comparing the pains and joys of each by means of linked analogies. The fire of hell is hotter than fire on earth in the same way that fire on earth is hotter than fire painted on a wall; the pains of purgatory make the pains of women in childbirth comparable to a warm bath. Rather than using the vivid images employed by some meditations, these comparisons rely on sensory experience in an attempt to make the afterlife palpable, though the analogies ultimately concede the im­possibility of such understanding.

From the afterlife, the text moves to the messy physicality of human existence, arguing that no worldly pleasure can be worth the pains of hell or purgatory, or surpass the true pleasures of heaven. Then the text turns to the help offered by God in the form of Christ’s suffering and Redemption, before concluding with an examination of the balance between grace, good works, mercy, and justice.

In these latter sections, the poem operates much more as a forensic argument than a meditation, but two manuscripts call this text “The Markys of Meditacion,” and its intended function can only be guessed at. Like the complete Prick of Conscience, it was probably valued by clerics as a manual of doctrine and a resource for preaching; one fifteenth-century owner was John Pery, canon of the Holy Trinity at Aldgate in London.2 It may have served as preparatory reading for confession or perhaps as reading during Embertide, the three days of fasting repeated once in each of the four seasons that were occasions for somber contem­plation of mortality.3

Manuscript Context

Stimulus Consciencie Minor follows directly after Maidstone’s Seven Penitential Psalms, and these two texts share a similar penitential impulse (as well as learned origins and the same 8-line abababab stanza form). Several other works in these later quires of Ashmole 61 also brood over mortality and the afterlife, most notably The Sinner’s Lament, The Adulterous Falmouth Squire, and Vanity (items 35a, 35b, and 40). Of these, Stimulus Consciencie Minor resembles The Sinner’s Lament and The Adulterous Falmouth Squire most closely; all three texts imagine the grotesque tortures of hell and emphasize sin’s deadly consequences. Though The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls (item 25) covers similar territory in its vision of purgatory and heaven, its frame narrative emphasizes communal obligation to remember the dead and the Church’s protective governance over this world and the next. In contrast to this emphasis on community in All Saints and All Souls, Stimulus Consciencie Minor invests most of its energies in examining the choices each soul makes that determine its fate. The individual, not family members or fellow parishioners, remains responsible for his or her own salvation.


Stimulus Consciencie Minor survives in eight manuscripts, though one of these is a frag­ment (Wellesley College Library MS 8). The only prior edition of the text was made by Carl Horstmann, but his chosen text was incomplete and unrepresentative of the majority of the other texts. The best text is that of Ad3, which was copied in the last decades of the four­teenth century in north Yorkshire. This is the earliest surviving copy, and the distribution of the other manuscripts strongly suggests that the poem (like The Prick of Conscience) originated in the North and spread southwards into the Midlands. Ashmole 61’s text follows Ad3’s readings more closely and more often than several other surviving texts, but Rate has nonetheless introduced many of his own revisions. His exemplar had already partially “translated” many of the northern dialect forms inherited from Ad3 or other early copies, but Rate goes further, and swaps out much of the remaining northern vocabulary. He also engages in his usual practices of rolling revision, changing the word order of many lines and substituting his own stock phrases in others. The readings of the closely contemporary Leicestershire manuscript C (see General Introduction to the volume) often reveal where Rate has strayed from his copy-text.

Printed Editions

Horstmann, Carl, ed. Yorkshire Writers: Richard Rolle of Hampole, An English Father of the Church and His Followers. 2:36–45. [From British Library MS Royal 17.B.17.]

Reference Works

MWME–70, 2486–92 [On The Prick of Conscience; briefly mentions the Stimu­lus Consciencie Minor]

See also Beaty, Britton, Kühn, R. Lewis and McIntosh, and R. Morris in the bibliog­raphy.

Go To Item 33, Stimulus Consciencie Minor, text
Go To Abbreviations