112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Virtual Pilgrimage in the Prick of Conscience

Ellen K. Rentz, Claremont McKenna College

This paper explores the relationship between vernacular theology and travel writing. I examine the discussion of Holy Land pilgrimage in the Prick of Conscience in relation to the visual iconography of the parish church and poems such as Piers Plowman.


The Prick of Conscience (c. 1350) offers its readers a harrowing account of the misery of the human condition, the terrifying end of the world, and the pains of Purgatory and Hell. This best-selling late medieval poem traffics primarily in fear and dread, but in book five it indulges the reader in a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with none other than Jesus serving as tour guide. The pilgrimage functions as a prelude to the Prick-author’s treatment of Last Judgment, during which the saved will see a triumphant Christ and the damned will see his torn and tortured body. But this is no ordinary journey to the Holy Land: no liturgical stops to commemorate an absent Christ in the places where he suffered, no walking in his footsteps. Instead, the Prick-author depicts Jesus himself taking the reader on a bird’s-eye tour – the poet even imagines what Jesus might say about the Mount of Olives, for example, or about Bethlehem.


This paper explores the relationship between vernacular theology and travel writing. On the one hand, the poet’s description of the Holy Land exhibits a number of parallels with contemporary pilgrimage accounts. And yet the author seems to be advocating against travel entirely: Why make an earthly pilgrimage in this life when, at the end of time, those who have lived worthily will be rewarded by a much more intimate tour led by Jesus himself? I want to suggest that this unusual travel narrative folds pilgrimage into the ritual life of the local parish by combining travel writing with traditional Last Judgment iconography. The Prick-author’s bird’s-eye view of the Holy Land evokes the vista laid out in chancel arch paintings of the end of the world, putting the reader in the same place as the parishioner who reflects on the end of time from his or her viewpoint in the nave. Like a Last Judgment painting, the Prick of Conscience offers a glimpse of the end in order to motivate readers to modify their behavior in the here and now, how to take steps in this life that will lead to salvation in the next. I also want to argue that the poem’s travel passage endorses vernacular theology: Why journey to the Holy Land when you can get there by reading? Like other Middle English devotional texts, including Piers Plowman, the Prick of Conscience takes up the discourse of pilgrimage and travel in order to teach readers to be more mindful of the steps they take in this life.