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Reviewed by:
  • Prik of Conscience ed. by James H. Morey
  • Ian Cornelius
Prik of Conscience. Edited by James H. Morey. TEAMS Middle English Text Series. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2012. Pp. vi + 282. $20.

From a variety of contemporary critical perspectives, the Prick of Conscience might be considered the most important poem in Middle English. It survives, by a wide margin, in more copies than any other Middle English verse composition. The approximation in my previous sentence stems not only from the standard question of what counts as a “copy” of a poem but also from the fact that scholars of Middle English have not been particularly good at recognizing incomplete copies of this poem. (Certainly, we are far more adept at identifying stray lines of the runner-up, a collection of literary narratives called The Canterbury Tales.) There are, in Ralph Hanna’s most recent count, 170 manuscripts of the Prick of Conscience, complete or fragmentary. This should make the poem a central exhibit in histories of reading, books, and textual culture. Likewise, the poem’s widely disseminated treatments of difficult theological problems (relating to penance, Purgatory, cognitive faculties, etc.) ought to attract study as a central exhibit of Middle English “learnedness” and, more precisely, of the transmission of knowledge from the Latin schools to a variety of vernacular constituencies, clerical and lay. Yet this poem remains almost invisible within our field.

This state of affairs is currently being corrected, beginning, as it must, with the provision of texts. Prior to the appearance of James Morey’s new edition in the TEAMS Middle English Text Series, the only modern print edition was that of Richard Morris, published in 1863. By the time this review sees publication, the TEAMS text will be joined by another new edition, published by the Early English Text Society and edited by Ralph Hanna and Sarah Wood.

One can gain an initial perspective on these editions by considering the sources and treatment of their texts. Morris’s edition was a report, with transcription errors typical of period procedures, of the text in British Library, MS Cotton Galba E.ix (s. xiv ex., “fully northern” language), with missing text (two blocks totaling about 2,500 lines) supplied from British Library, MS Harley 4196, another late fourteenth-century copy in fully northern language. (For manuscript dates, language, and textual affiliations, I rely on Robert Lewis and Angus McIntosh, A Descriptive Guide to the Manuscripts of the Prick of Conscience [1982].) Morey’s new TEAMS edition is likewise a notionally single-manuscript edition, reporting the readings of Yale University, Beinecke Library, MS Osborn a.13 (s.xv1, Lichfield) with missing text supplied from Morris. Morris is used to fill lacunae resulting from loss of four folios [End Page 400] from Osborn. Morey also supplies, from Morris, isolated emendations and a small number of individual lines or couplets, mostly in Part 7.

The result is a type of textual conflation familiar to students of medieval textual transmission. As Lewis and McIntosh note in their Descriptive Guide, Galba and Harley belong to a textual subgroup of the Main Version different from that of Osborn. One of the points of difference occurs in the opening lines of the poem, missing in Osborn through loss of the manuscript’s first folio. One might have wished that, rather than turning to Morris, Morey had supplied missing text from a manuscript copy of the poem more closely related to his copy text. By contrast with this situation, the forthcoming EETS edition will be a critical text, based on the manuscripts used by Morris, but with corrections drawn from about a half dozen textually related copies.

After the appearance of the EETS edition, the TEAMS edition will continue to be a valuable students’ text and a precise fit to the Middle English Text Series’ goal of supplying “texts which occupy an important place in the literary and cultural canon but which have not been readily available in student editions.” Morey’s edition may also be of interest to researchers, as a report of the Osborn manuscript’s text of the Prick of Conscience. I address the remainder of this review to these...


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