Medieval Poetics and Social Practice: Responding to the Work of Penn R. Szittya

By Seeta Chaganti | Go to book overview

ENABLED AND DISABLED “MYNDES”
IN THE PRICK OF CONSCIENCE

Moira Fitzgibbons

This essay will argue that The Prick of Conscience contributes in important ways to late-medieval discussions of human rationality and thought.1 The engagement of the unnamed Consciencepoet with these issues might seem surprising, given how vividly and adamantly he depicts the wretchedness of the world, the inevitability of death, and the torments of hell. But his audience’s innate reason and intellectual potential emerge with their own palpable reality within the poem. These qualities become prominent as a result of the poet’s expansive investigation of conscience. Instead of referring simply to penitential selfinterrogation, “conscience” functions as part of a rich and interrelated web of human attributes, including “mynde,” “skill,” “wit,” “imaginacioun,” and the “kynde” that generates and connects them.

This dimension of The Prick of Conscience highlights an important area of inquiry within fourteenth- and fifteenth-century religious writing in England. As defined in the last two decades or so, English vernacular theology of the late Middle Ages is characterized by innovative and ambitious renditions of theological material into Middle English accompanied by thoughtful reflection on the stakes of these translations.2 While The Prick of Conscience participates in all of these practices, it homes in on the fundamental relationship between rationality and belief. Christians’ ability to understand complex ideas, to distinguish right from wrong, and to focus on their eternal fates constitutes the Conscience-poet’s most pressing concern. In attending so carefully to questions of reason and thought, the poem highlights a preoccupation shared by other writers, ranging from Langland to Nicholas Love and beyond.3 Late-medieval writers needed not just to define what their audiences should learn but also to address the more elemental question of how people think. The poem’s consistent yoking of salvation to the capabilities of the mind may help account for its appeal to medieval compilers and audiences; more than 115 manuscripts remain, distributed over a wide geographic range.4

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