20 January 2017
The Psychomachia: An Early Medieval Comic Book
What do Captain America, Wonder Woman and a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon manuscript have in common? The answer may be more surprising than you think. The Psychomachia, or ‘War of the Soul’, was composed by the Late Antique poet Prudentius in the 5th century and depicts an action-packed battle between the Virtues and Vices for possession of the human soul. This allegory of good versus evil was hugely popular in the medieval period with about 300 surviving copies of the work, 20 of which were illuminated. Two illuminated Anglo-Saxon copies are held at the British Library (now Add MS 24199 and Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII) and their illustrations can be compared to our comic books today.
No need for utility belts: Pride rides down Humility and Hope, with Latin and Old English captions in Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 15v
These two manuscripts of the Psychomachia were produced in England in the 10th and 11th centuries, and like comics they feature illuminations in bordered frames, frequently accompanied by captions to summarise the often fast-paced plotline. The seven virtues are portrayed as seven female champions of the Christian faith against seven female pagan idolaters, who ultimately claim victory on the battlefield in front of a thousand cheering martyrs. The deaths of each vice are comically violent: Faith beheads Idolatry, Chastity slays Lust with her sword, and Sobriety uses the cross of the Lord to sabotage Indulgence’s chariot before striking her with a flint stone.
Is it a plane? Sobriety defeating Indulgence as depicted in Add MS 24199, f. 20r
Kerpow! Anger’s sword breaks when used against Patience in Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 12r
Both manuscripts were probably used as classroom aids by Anglo-Saxon monks. Cleopatra C VIII was written at Christ Church, Canterbury, and Additional MS 24199 may later have been owned by the abbey at Bury St Edmunds. These copies of the Psychomachia contain numerous glosses, or commentary writings, that are often present in schoolbooks of monastic communities.
Why would monks and their students study such a graphic text? Although monks lived in a warrior society, they could not take up arms against others and were encouraged to fight a spiritual battle instead. Alcuin wrote a letter to Bishop Higbald and the Lindisfarne community after the 793 Viking attack telling them to ‘be a model of all goodness to all who can see you, a herald of salvation to all who hear you’. Later, the New Minster Refoundation Charter (Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII), probably written by Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester in 966, noted that just as the king fought visible enemies, so too did monks protect the realm by fighting spiritual battles with invisible enemies. Similarly, the Psychomachia conveyed a message to monastic communities that moral combat against spiritual enemies was just as heroic as facing physical opponents in war.
It’s Clobberin’ Time: Patience undaunted by the vices in Add MS 24199, f. 8r
Spiritual combat: Cuthbert of Lindisfarne extinguishing a fire set by a demon, from Chapter 13 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert in Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 30r
La Psychomachia fut composée au 5ème siècle par le poète Prudence. Ce poème épique met en scène la bataille allégorique des vices et vertus, dont l’enjeu principal est le contrôle de l’âme humaine. Ce “Combat de l’âme” fut largement diffusé tout au long du Moyen Age puisqu’on compte plus de 300 manuscrits subsistants.
Deux d’entre eux sont aujourd’hui conservés à la British Library: Add MS 24199 et Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII. Ils furent copiés en Angleterre, respectivement aux 10ème et 11ème siècles, et présentent une décoration comparable à celles des bandes dessinées actuelles. Chaque scène encadrée illustre l’intrigue, en regard du texte. La vocation pédagogique de ces illustrations suggère que ces manuscrits furent probablement utilisés dans les écoles monastiques. Après l’attaque de Lindisfarne (793), le message délivré n’en devenait que plus clair pour les communautés monastiques: le combat spirituel et moral doit l’emporter sur le glaive.
Laure Miolo (French summary)
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval
Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project