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 âWar of the Soulâ, 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 Additional 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 Indulgenceâs chariot before striking her with a flint stone.
Is it a plane? Sobriety defeating Indulgence as depicted in Additional MS 24199, f. 20r
Both manuscripts were probably used as classroom aids by Anglo-Saxon monks. Cleopatra C VIII was written at the abbey in 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 âbe a model of all goodness to all who can see you, a herald of salvation to all who hear youâ. Later, the New Minster Refoundation Charter (Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII), probably written by Bishop Ăthelwold 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.
Itâs Clobberinâ Time: Patience undaunted by the vices in Additional 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 composĂ©e au 5Ăšme siĂšcle par le poĂšte Prudence. Ce poĂšme Ă©pique met en scĂšne la bataille allĂ©gorique des vices et vertus, dont lâenjeu principal est le contrĂŽle de lâĂąme humaine. Ce âCombat de lâĂąmeâ fut largement diffusĂ© tout au long du Moyen Age puisquâon compte plus de 300 manuscrits subsistants.
Deux dâentre eux sont aujourdâhui conservĂ©s Ă la British Library: Add MS 24199 et Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII. Ils furent copiĂ©s en Angleterre, respectivement aux 10Ăšme et 11Ăšme siĂšcles, et prĂ©sentent une dĂ©coration comparable Ă celles des bandes dessinĂ©es actuelles. Chaque scĂšne encadrĂ©e illustre lâintrigue, en regard du texte. La vocation pĂ©dagogique de ces illustrations suggĂšre que ces manuscrits furent probablement utilisĂ©s dans les Ă©coles monastiques. AprĂšs lâattaque de Lindisfarne (793), le message dĂ©livrĂ© nâen devenait que plus clair pour les communautĂ©s monastiques: le combat spirituel et moral doit lâemporter sur le glaive.
Laure Miolo (French summary)
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