The Psychomachia or War of the Soul was composed in the 5th century by the poet Prudentius. This epic poem, which Coleridge has characterized as “the first completely modern allegory in its form”, depicts the battle of vices and virtues for possession of the human soul. This Early Medieval “comic book” seems to have been very popular throughout the Middle Ages, as 300 copies of it have survived, 20 of which were illuminated.
Prudentius was born 348 in the Roman province of Tarraconensis in Hispania and died probably in the Iberian Peninsula some time after 405.
At first, Prudentius was not a poet, but a governor and lawyer, who at some point in his life retired from public life, became and ascetic and devoted himself to Latin-language poetry with Christian themes. His book, comprising illustrations with Latin and Old English captions, was so successful, that his name went down in history as a Roman Christian poet and not as a governor.
Two of the surviving copies are preserved in the British Library. They were produced in England, in the 10th and 11th centuries. They contain illuminations in bordered frames, where the seven virtues are depicted as 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”, as the British Library’s Alison Ray notes in the library’s medieval manuscripts blog. The illustrations are comparable to those of today’s comic books.
The pedagogical vocation of these illustrations suggests that these manuscripts were probably used in monastic schools. But why were monks drawn to the story? At the time war was very common. As monks could not fight in a literal sense, their role in society was to fight spiritual battles with invisible enemies. And the Psychomachia “conveyed a message to monastic communities that moral combat against spiritual enemies was just as heroic as facing physical opponents in war”, as Ray concludes.