The Religious Context for Psychomachia’s Feminine Virtues and Vices

By Faryn Thomas, Jennifer Morse, Joseph Marques, and Robert Carhuayo

One of the aspects of the Psychomachia that our group found particularly interesting was the fact that the virtues and vices are all presented as women. This is an initially surprising choice, as the virtues and vices are all warriors engaging in battle, and this is obviously not a role traditionally inhabited by women. This choice isn’t merely accidental, as other characters are present in Psychomachia (soldiers), but do not have their gender specified. Thus, the question arises: Why make the virtues and vices specifically women, especially considering that they are all women? One potential explanation for this choice is that the virtues and vices aren’t really people, but rather meant to represent ideals. The virtues are only perfect embodiments of qualities like soberness, chastity etc, while the vices are embodiments of purely evil qualities like indulgence, lust etc. None of them have any nuance, they are either perfectly good or perfectly bad. This idea of one either being completely perfect or totally evil is mirrored in the status of women in medieval society, who are expected to hold up to ideals of perfection, or pure womanhood. In the middle ages, women were either the perfectly virtuous wife and mother, or, if they do just a bit wrong, are damned sinners and harlots. Thus, portraying the virtues and vices as women can be explained through considering how the ideals they represent are the ideals that women are already shoved into in medieval society. This dichotomy between virtue and vice in women in medieval society is present in Christian theology, which was the dominant theology of medieval society.

This dichotomy between the perfectly virtuous woman and damned sinner is mirrored in the two most prominent female figures in Christianity: Eve and Mary. Eve not only engaged in the original sin with Adam, but sinned first and tempted Adam into sin, similar to how the vices tempt the soul of a man to sin. 

12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” 

13 Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” [Genesis 3:12-13] 

In the opposite form, we have the Virgin Mary, one of the most important saints of the church. While we cannot say that Mary was born without sin (as that was not consistent church doctrine until well after the middle ages), she was at least born blessed, 

27 To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. 30 And the angel said unto her, fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God [Luke 1:27-28, 30] 

Similar to the virtues, Mary also saves the soul of man by giving birth to the messiah who redeemed humankind from original sin.

These two extreme examples in Christianity inspired the two main roles a woman could fulfill in the Middle Ages: she could either marry (serving man directly, as Eve had done) or become a nun (being as chaste as the Virgin Mary, and indirectly serving the souls of Man through holy power). If she was neither married nor a nun, she was almost always full of vice, as she was not serving Man nor his soul, yet still desiring him. Since there’s no middle ground for what a woman could be, they were depicted in the extremes of virtue and vice, much like two sides of a war clashing against each other, all in service or for the desire of the soul of Man. This then explains the choice to make these feminine virtues and vice warriors, gearing up against each other in “The Fight for Mansoul.”Another reason why Prudentious may have depicted this clash between virtue and vice as a war  was to catch the interest of the average reader in the Middle Ages, accustomed with wars and holy battles. In addition, such a setting would teach them the sheer awesome power of virtue, and the perilous fate of one who tangles with vice.


Image: Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Mss.h.h.I.16, p. 112

Prudentius. Psychomachia. Edited and Translated by H. J. Thomson, Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1949.

Renwick, George W. Bible New Revised Standard Version. World Pub, 1989.

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