An excerpt from my forthcoming review of Prik of Conscience, ed. by James H. Morey, TEAMS Middle English Text Series (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2012). The full text of this review will appear in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology.
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 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. […]
Update: Rosemary O’Neill and Ellen Rentz are organizing a roundtable session on this poem at the 2014 meeting of the New Chaucer Society. Read their session description here.