Blood, Guts and Virtue: the Gory Details of the Psychomachia

Drenched in blood and covered in gore, there is no shortage of violence in Prudentius’ Psychomachia — a gruesome battle between Vices and Virtues for control of the human soul. However, despite all the blood in the poem, and the fact that the Virtues do not always clearly have the upper hand, it is striking that the Virtues only actually bleed once: 

Discord had entered our ranks wearing the counterfeit shape of a friend… Yet she was not permitted to pierce the vital parts of [Concord’s] sacred body; only the skin was hurt with a mere touch on the surface, and showed the mark of but a light stream of blood (Prudentius, p. 327)

Scene 37: Humility offers Pride’s head to Hope – BL, Cotton Cleopatra C. viii, fol. 17r

Even then, Concord only shows the mark of “but a light stream of blood” (Prudentius, p. 327). In fact, rather than Concord’s wound bringing blood into the language of the Virtues, it seems to be more closely connected to the Vices, as this “tell-tale blood dripping from the armored coat” is what ultimately betrays Discord’s hidden presence (Prudentius, p. 329).

 

In contrast to the brutal physical harm inflicted on the Vices as they die, the hardest hit taken by the Virtues—when their defeat seems the most imminent—is markedly “without the shedding of blood” as Indulgence’s “subtle poison” and “charms” mislead and deceive their armies (Prudentius, p. 303):

So the Virtues are won over by her charms; the alluring breath blows a subtle poison on them that unmans their frames, the fatally sweet scent subduing their lips and hearts and weapons, softening their iron-clad muscles and crushing their strength… The stout hearted Virtue Soberness mourned to see a crime so sore, her allies deserting the right wing, a band once invincible being lost without shedding of blood. (Prudentius, 303)

While the Virtues only bleed once, throughout the Psychomachia the Vices are repeatedly described as dripping with blood and gore: Deceit is “the blood stained enemy”, Wrath, “foaming at the mouth, darts her eyes, all shot with blood and gall”, and Lust “spews out hot fumes with clots of foul blood” (Prudentius, p. 299, 287, 283). 

Scene 9: Faith conquers Idolatry – BL, Cotton Titus D. xvi, fol. 6r

It is notable also, that while many of the Vices die in gruesome ways, Indulgence’s demise is particularly blood-heavy:

[Soberness] holds up the cross of the Lord in the face of the raging chariot-horses, thrusting the holy wood against their very bridles; and for all their boldness they have taken fright… Their driver, leaning far back and pulling on the reins, is carried helplessly along, her dripping locks befouled with dust; then she is thrown out and the whirling wheels entangle her who was their mistress, for she falls forward under the axle and her mangled body is the brake that slows the chariot down. Soberness gives her the death-blow as she lies, hurling at her a great stone from the rock…chance drives the stone to smash the breath-passage in the midst of the face and beat the lips into the arched mouth. The teeth within are loosened, the gullet cut, and the mangled tongue fills it with bloody fragments. Her gorge rises at the strange meal; gulping down the pulped bones she spews up again the lumps she swallowed. “Drink up now thine own blood, after thy many cups,” says the maiden, upbraiding her. “Be these thy grim dainties, in place of the too much sweetness thou hast enjoyed in time past.” (Prudentius, p. 307-9)

This passage acts as a kind of cruel echo of the picture of Indulgence’s prime feasting days that is painted earlier, shortly before she is ripped to pieces: 

And so to feasts that last into the night, where the great tankard spills out wasted floods of foaming wine, while the ladles drip onto the table, the couches are soaked with neat liquor, and their embossed ornaments still wet with the dew of yesterday. (Prudentius, p. 305)

It is interesting that this bloody development sees wine transform into blood, reminiscent of Jesus’ famous actions at the last supper: 

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26: 26-28)

Scene 25: Suicide of Wrath – BL, Add. 24199, fol. 10v

It is also interesting that we see this bloodless depiction of the virtuous in other medieval literature. For example, in the Old English poems Genesis A/B, the process of Eve being created from Adam’s rib is described in the following way:

He drew that substance from Adam’s body, and carefully pulled a rib from his side. He was fast asleep and softly slumbered, felt no soreness, no share of pain, nor did any blood come from the wound, but the prince of angels drew out from his body a living bone, the man unwounded, from which God made a noble woman. (Genesis, 15)

At this pre-fall stage in the poem, Adam and Eve are the archetypes of virtue — made in God’s image and blind to the existence of sin — and the wounding of Adam is distinctly devoid of blood. It seems that, while blood marks the enemy, bloodlessness is an inherent quality of virtuous medieval figures. 

 

 

Genesis A/B. Edited and Translated by Daniel Anlezark, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011. 

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.

One thought on “Blood, Guts and Virtue: the Gory Details of the Psychomachia

  1. I loved this post and also found it quite interesting that we only saw blood once in connection with harm done to any of the virtues. A thought I had that is not really based in the text but is perhaps more of a lesson I gleaned from it (maybe the intention of Prudentius, maybe not) was this optimistic one: is Prudentius implying that, while we may often fall into vice as humans, virtue will always triumph over vice, or that virtue is inherently much stronger than vice which is, in the end, permanently scathed or destroyed, while virtue suffers only minor injury?

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