The war of souls

In Psychomachia, one of the most popular poems of Medieval Europe, the personifications of Christian virtues fight the vices in a bloodthirsty battle royale. Decapitation, strangulation, squished eyeballs, vomiting bloody teeth…

How do you instruct people in the Christian virtues without it getting boring? Well, if you’re the late Latin poet Prudentius, you spice it up through the power of allegory. Bloody, bloodthirsty allegory. Shockingly explicit allegory.

Psychomachia, written in the late 4th or early 5th century CE,  is a short poem written in Latin. It’s surprisingly difficult to find a good English translation online, so I’m going to use excerpts from a 1953 translation by a Californian nun named Sister Cornelia Joseph Lynch to show you just how brutal this poem gets.

The set-up is simple: a gigantic battle in which personifications of Christian virtues face off against their opposing vices: Chastity fights Lust, Sobriety fights Luxury, and so forth. And I don’t mean they give them a good scolding. No, the swords are out in this one!

(A side note: while there’s some overlap, Psychomachia‘s virtues and vices are not the same as the seven Christian virtues and seven deadly sins of later Roman Catholicism. Although this early text probably did inspire them.)

The first battle is between Faith and Paganism. It’s quick. Faith chops off Paganism’s head, and then squishes Paganism’s eyes underfoot:

[Faith], rising on high smites down that head, its temples adorned with fillets and its mouth too often sated with the blood of beasts, and tramples under foot the eyes forced out in death. This evil power, its throat choked and broken, gasps for breath and suffers an agonizing death.

Lust (in Latin, delightfully, named Sodomita Libido) gets a blade to the throat from Chastity:

With her sword she pierces the throat of the disarmed harlot, who vomits forth hot vapors clotted with black blood, and, as she expires, pollutes the surrounding atmosphere with her foul breath.

Wrath throws everything she has at Patience, whose tough armour and unflappable manner drives Wrath so wild that she kills herself with an arrow. And then Patience gloats:

Fiery Anger is her own unbridled enemy, destroying herself by her raging and dying by her own weapons.

Humility chops off Pride’s head as Pride cries out for mercy (Mercy must have been off that day); her companion Hope then takes the opportunity to tell off the decapitated head. It would have been a bit odd for Humility to deliver the parting boast, I guess.

Luxury (in some translations Indulgence) assaults the holy army with flowers, followed by a noxious air that leaves them weakened and powerless. Sobriety uses the cross to send Luxury’s chariot over a cliff and then she drops a boulder on her. The result is this charming passage:

Sobriety, hurling a large stone from a cliff, gives her the death blow. […] chance also sent the stone shattering the orifice of the mouth, crushing the lips into the arched palate; the teeth are loosened within, the mangled tongue fills the lacerated throat with gouts of blood. At this strange meal the throat revolts, as gulping down the melted bones, it belches forth the morsels once swallowed.

Avarice is strangled to death in yet another suspiciously descriptive passage:

Virtue, most redoubtable, assails her trembling foe with a firm arm-grip and squeezing her neck, strangles and crushes the throat dry, drained of its blood. The tight clasp of the arms under the chin twists life from the imprisoned jaws, which, suffering no mortal blow, yet throb, and with the breath stifled within, Avarice suffers death, confined within the prison of her body.

For some reason all this gore was hugely popular. Illuminated manuscripts of Psychomachia were made and distributed throughout Europe for hundreds of years, and it probably inspired many subsequent allegories like Piers Plowman.

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