Perspectives on Medieval Allegory in Psychomachia

Medieval Allegory and Classical Structures in Psychomachia

Though biblical figures, stories, and sentiments form the backbone of Prudentius’ Psychomachia, echoes of classical structures weave their way into the allegory. Prudentius utilizes few explicit callbacks to Greek or Roman mythology. While Boethius calls upon the Muses and regularly references gods such as Boreas or Bacchus, Prudentius relies upon biblical stories for background, including the tale of Holofernes and Judith or the life of Job. The incorporation of classical mythology in Prudentius’ text is subtle, visible in the structure and patterns of the text. Psychomachia revels in bloodshed and violence. The intense description of battle mimics the style of Greek and Roman epics, particularly Virgil’s Aeneid. In addition, Psychomachia uses dactylic hexameters, the standard verse form of classical Latin literature. The incorporation of these classical structures complicates Psychomachia as a Christian allegory. On the surface, Psychomachia engages with tropological medieval allegory, exploring morality and the behavior of a just Christian. However, by utilizing classical structures, Psychomachia brings in another category of medieval allegory: typological category. Traditionally, allegories in this category analyze the New Testament by connecting it to Old Testament stories. With Virgil’s battle-structures, Prudentius adds another link to that chain. Prudentius analyzes Christian morality through a lens of Roman battle epics, synthesizing separated traditions.

Medieval Allegory and Jewish Biblical Commentary

While Prudentius’ allegory “Psychomachia” began a Christian tradition of allegory, Prudentius also influenced medieval Jewish thought and biblical commentary. Medieval allegories were broken up into four categories of literal meaning, typological (connecting Old and New Testament), tropological (moral of the story), and anagogical, which deals with events of the future. The Jewish tradition of Kabbalistic midrash also uses four categories as a strategy for interpreting the Bible, and borrows some of the ideas that surround the levels of Christian medieval allegory. Midrash is broken up into p’shat (simple), the literal meaning of the text, remez (hint), the implied meaning, drash (interpret), the allegorical or moral meaning, and sod (secret), the hidden meaning of the text. Since beginning as a first year I’ve been surprised at how often my Jewish education overlaps into the sphere of secular literature study. Whether discussing the difference between poetry and prose, or the pros and cons between the original versus translation, and now medieval allegory, my Judaics classes from high school are relevant in a way I hadn’t expected. Several times during my time as a student at my high school I was sent off with a partner to read a biblical commentary that utilized some methods of kabbalistic midrash. A medieval commentator would delve into a less literal interpretation of the text and talk about demons or some other mystical or antiquated mythology. Now, when reading Psychomachia, the same questions of relevance arise as they did when reading ancient texts and medieval commentaries in high school. We can choose to read these for literary, historical, and religious purposes, as well as purely for enjoyment. Being able to connect my Jewish education to Prudentious was  satisfying, and hopefully I’ll be able to use Prudentius in a similar way in some future class.

Medieval Allegory and Warfare

“Psychomachia” is a text about making one’s soul virtuous, and thus pleasing to God. Prudentius’s use of allegory to address this theme allows the reader to bear witness to this otherwise private, internal process. As was frequently remarked upon in class, Prudentius’s allegory takes a strikingly violent form, presenting the triumph of virtue over vice as a battle between two opposing armies. In this, “Psychomachia” is an early example of the medieval articulation of temptation towards sin in militaristic terms. When I took a course on medieval masculinity two years ago, we talked quite a bit about medieval monastic authors’ frequent description of their resistance to the temptations of secular life as spiritual warfare, which Prof. Saltzman mentioned in class on Tuesday. To cite just one example I recently noticed in a text I am working with for my thesis, the History of the Kings of England composed in the monastic community of Durham c. 1129 refers to a group of men who, “abandoning a worldly life, entered upon the monastic warfare.” In my medieval masculinity course, we discussed this motif as a monastic co-opting of the language of hegemonic warrior-aristocrat masculinity. It seems to me that Prudentius is doing the same thing in his depiction of Christian morality as a warfare, since warrior aristocratic culture carried great prestige in the 4th century Roman world, just as it did in high medieval Europe, even if the warrior aristocracy itself was quite different in form. 

2 thoughts on “Perspectives on Medieval Allegory in Psychomachia

  1. This is a helpful way to approach the allegorical work that the Psychomachia is doing, connected as it is to the practice of biblical exegesis. There are specific moments in the poem, as you suggest, that directly call attention to this practice of interpreting the various senses of scripture: Job, Abraham, Judith, for example. But then how does this practice inform the rest of the poem? That is an interesting question for us!

    I also would just note that the relationship between the Midrash and Christian exegesis–with the apparent similarity of their four levels of interpretation–is obviously complicated and many would argue for the fundamental uniqueness of Midrash. But as I understand it, Midrash was a much earlier practice. So the direction of influence would not have been from Christianity to Judaism, but if anything the other way around. I wonder if this changes your experience of reading the text at all.

    Really enjoyed reading this!

  2. These ideas tie in really well to what I’ve been learning in my New Testament class. I would complicate the siloed relationship between Hellenism and Christianity; Christianity was heavily influenced by Greco-Roman culture as it was born out of those empires. I recently learned that the Gospels were probably stylistically following the Homeric epic in many parts. This is all just to say that Christianity was already the product of a Judeo/Greco-Roman syncretism. Hailing from Spain under the end of the Roman empire, Prudentius is a natural product of this well mixed culture.

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