Tim Eggington and Paul Harcourt
Queens’ Old Library is fortunate in the fact that, unlike many other rare book libraries, most of its early printed books retain their original bindings. This is of huge significance as marks of ownership, styles of decoration, signs of use to be found on early bindings afford scholars a wealth of insights into how books were used, who read them, and what early readers actually thought about the texts they read. It is the abundance of such information in Queens’ books that makes the library unique as a resource for scholarship and learning. A further attraction of early bindings (of particular prevalence at Queens’) is the sixteenth-century practice of incorporating discarded medieval manuscripts into bindings as a practical measure designed to strengthen and preserve the newer printed books. At a time when the printing revolution was in full flow it made perfect sense to deem scribal productions of the medieval past as obsolete, especially in the newly established Protestant areas where many of the old theological manuscripts conflicted with Reformation ideology. The very fact that such fragments were deemed obsolete can make them all the more interesting today.
It is in the light of this that a recent discovery by Queens’ library volunteer and rare books expert, Paul Harcourt, is of particular interest. In the binding of a multi volume work by the devoutly Protestant Johann Brenz (1499–1570) he has found fragments from The Prick of Conscience, a medieval English work which, although now largely forgotten, was hugely influential from its time of composition (probably in the fourteenth century) until the Reformation. Despite the fact that, as fragments, the source does not offer a complete reading of the text, its discovery has greatly excited scholars of the period for whom its unique scribal and linguistic characteristics add further light on the poem’s history and reception.
Let us begin by considering Johann Brenz’s multi volume collected works edition (Operum reverendi et clarisssimi theology, Tübingen, 1576-94), whose bindings now house the fragments. The presence in Queens’ Library of theological works by a German Protestant Reformer and Luther associate such as Brenz reflects the eagerness with which Queens’ college had embraced the new faith. Although we don’t know exactly how the volume came to Queens’ the name and motto of a former owner inscribed in a sixteenth-century hand on the title page is itself reflective of the work’s resonance in Protestant England: ‘Thomas Shawe’, ‘Iustificans christi mors mihi sola salus’ [‘The justifying death of Christ the only salvation for me’].
As to whether Shawe actually read the fragments in the covers of his copy of Brenz we cannot know. Nevertheless, it is ironic in the extreme that a work of Reformation ideology should ultimately have been the cause for the preservation of fragments from The Prick of Conscience, a poem which harks so powerfully back to England’s Catholic past. Perhaps one of the most popular texts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, The Prick of Conscience exists in more manuscripts (now 127) than any other Middle English poem, and so its circulation at that time appears to have been at least twice as extensive as that of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This is even more remarkable when one considers that although the poem is of Northern English origin (probably Yorkshire) it was able to reach an extensive audience across the whole of the country, in particular, East Anglia, the south west Midlands, Sussex and Devon. Its popularity is also evident in the many allusions to the poem to be found in medieval wills and book lists. Clear parallels with the Parson’s Tale indicate that Chaucer was familiar with the poem.
It is easy, however, to see why and how The Prick of Conscience has proved less attractive to modern readers than other works of the period. As a didactic and devotional work it set out to show what the common man must do to achieve divine goodness, and describes the dire consequences of leading a life of immorality. Its author (whose identity is unknown) sought to terrify the reader into leading an upright life by demonstrating that no worldly pleasure can be worth the pains of hell: filth and stench, hunger, thirst, weeping, despair, burning heat, great murkiness, grisly devils, and goading by the worm of conscience (Book VI of the poem from which our fragments come lists these).
The nine fragments themselves are made from vellum (sheep skin) and seem to have been used as some sort of guard to strengthen the bindings in vols. 2, 3, and 6 (a further set of fragments that were once in vol. 7 had been removed as part of an early twentieth-century restoration—fortunately they were then stored in the library’s safe).
Although early versions of the poem usually exist in the Yorkshire dialect, our fragments might appear to suggest their creation more in the East of the country. Recent research by Daniel Sawyer (to which this article is heavily indebted) has shown the following: present-day English ‘much’ appears as ‘mekil’, ‘not’ is ‘nout’, and ‘which’, ‘where’ and ‘whom’ are represented by ‘qwiche’, ‘qwere’ and ‘qwom’. Modern English ‘-ight’ is represented by ‘-ith’. Present-tense verbs with plural subjects terminate with ‘-yn’, ‘-en’ or ‘-n’ and present participles in ‘-and’. Dr Sawyer argues that these features could suggest a dialect originating in the area west of Norfolk, the south of Lincolnshire and the north of the Isle of Ely: an area north, at least, of Cambridge. However, he also notes that a Middle English text’s dialect is more likely to be the dialect of its scribe than that of the exemplar, and that scribes used to travel. Thus, in the absence of other corroborating evidence it is unwise to take the scribe’s dialect as an indication of the book’s place of creation.
Further details concerning this find will be available in an extended article by Daniel Sawyer to be published in the forthcoming issue of Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, later this year. We are grateful to Dr Sawyer for sharing his findings with us prior to publication.