Menacing Books: The Prick of Conscience and the Rhetoric of Reproof
This essay examines a recension of The Prick of Conscience that expounds Verse 41 of the Athanasian Creed: only those who ‘do well’ will enter heaven. Driven by the pastoral mandate to preach and to teach, the text reproves vicious behavior, especially among persons holding positions of authority, whether ecclesiastical or secular. Because it chastises misbehaving clerics in the vernacular, the recension has been associated with Lollardy. Against this hypothesis, I argue that the recension raises a larger question about late medieval religious culture in Britain: why would mainstream writers choose to reprove a presumably Latinate audience in English? The text adopts vituperative rhetoric directed against clerics from John Bromyard’s Summa praedicantium, extending its terms to indict lay and clerical ‘governors’ alike. Through interpolated passages of English verse and Latin prose, the text crafts a reformist discourse exhorting Christians of all estates to live virtuously. The same logic underlies Wimbledon’s St. Paul’s Cross sermon, a contemporary work likewise suspected of heterodoxy. Analyzing the two in tandem demonstrates that, in vernacular texts composed at the end of the fourteenth century, calling out prelates for misbehavior did not constitute a subversive act. In fact, this textualized promotion of reform spurred production in the early fifteenth century of new textual resources for pastoral formation, such as the Speculum Christiani. Verse summae like The Prick of Conscience were on their way out of fashion by the end of the fourteenth century. The interpolator’s meta-commentary on the ‘ful great charge’ of translation intimates why poets might have deselected the octosyllabic meter and schematic form of this genre. His difficulty translating academic theology into English verse, even when fitted out with a Latin prose apparatus, goes some way toward explaining the generic demise of versified theological compendia. Despite the interpolator’s valiant attempt to craft a bilingual, prosimetric reformist discourse, he comes up short, foundering in the attempt to render more theological topics accessible to lay readers in vernacular verse.