Prudentius’s Psychomachia, which means ‘Battle of the Soul’, is the first fully allegorical work in the European literary tradition. It describes the battle between the vices and virtues for the Christian soul.
Prudentius was a 5th-century Roman, Christian poet who lived in the province of Tarraconensis (now northern Spain). He worked as an administrator and official, but towards the end of his life he retreated from public service and devoted himself to composing verse. He wrote several works, but arguably his most influential was the Psychomachia.
Prudentius embodies the culture of the late Roman Empire – he made use of a rich classical inheritance and pressed it into the service of Christian, didactic literature. The Psychomachia comprises 915 lines of dactylic hexameters, the standard verse form of classical Latin literature.
Prudentius was greatly influenced by the Roman poet Virgil (70–19 BCE). As well as borrowing verse forms from Virgil, he also imitated the earlier poet’s descriptions of military battles. The battles between the vices and virtues, therefore, read like the martial battles between the heroes of the great classical epics.
The Psychomachia survives in around 300 manuscripts. Only three of them are illustrated, however (two of these are held by the British Library). This version was made in a monastery associated with the Benedictine Reform movement. It was most probably produced at Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk in around 990–1016 CE.
The manuscript is illustrated with beautiful line drawings which are touched with colour in some places. The drawings are simple, but the artist has given them depth by depicting the figures protruding over the edges of their frames and into the space of the viewer. Note, in particular, the fluid drapery and the exquisite patterned detail of the foliage.
View a full set of images of the digitised manuscript.