Prudentius’s Psychomachia (5th century AD) is one of the first and one of the most influential of medieval allegories. It is the source of the battle of Virtue and Vice that was one of the key themes of medieval allegory, which carries right into the Elizabethan allegory of Spenser’s Fairie Queene, with its militant virtues of holiness, temperance, and chastity. Insofar as modern fiction depicts the soul as a battleground of competing desires (popularly, the shoulder angels and devils in cartoons), Prudentius lives on.
His poem depicts a series of battles, all between female vices and virtues, often bloody. Faith opposes worship of false gods, chastity overcomes lust, Patience outlasts anger, which ultimately destroys itself, pride and lowliness battle, and greed and love.
Faith is the most brutal of the lot: “The first adversary approaches Faith; it is Worship-of-the-Old-Gods (we have no better name) who proposes to accept the challenge of Faith. But Faith strikes the enemy’s head and it tumbles in the dirt where it lies, with its be-ribboned brows and the wide mouth that ate the warm red flesh of beasts. Faith tramples the head and takes particular pains to squeeze the dead grey eyes out of the bloody skull; the monster’s throat is dosed and its breath is throttled in its passages until it gasps a hard death.”
After Chastity triumphs over lust, she taunts the corpse: “never again will you dare to spit your flames against the men and women who are God’s; their hearts are kindled by the torch of Christ’s pure love. Do you think, molester of men, that. you can get your strength and be warmed again by the breath of life? Remember the head of Holofernes: it soaked the cushions of his couch with the blood of passion; Judith, an honest woman, refused his jewelled bed and stopped his fervour with one thrust of her dagger. Weak woman though she was, her hand never trembled as she fought for my cause with heavenly boldness. But perhaps you think that because such a woman acted under the old law, a physical law, she and others like her would be powerless now that the battle has been moved to spiritual realms. But I tell you that feeble hands can still sever the heads of the mighty: a virgin has now borne a child. On that day when the flesh lost its nature and the power of God made for us a new flesh, a bride who never a wife conceived the Christ who is both man because of his mother and God because he was conceived by the Spirit of God. Ever since that day, all flesh is godlike since it conceives the Son of God and assumes his nature by a compact of partnership. The Word of God has not become another thing by taking flesh. The majesty of God is in no way reduced by the limits of bodily experience. But mankind is raised to understand nobler things: God remains as he always is though he begins to be something that he was not; we are no more as we had been because we have been born again to a be better condition. He give of himself to men, without detracting from what he is; he has not been diminished by taking what is ours, but by adding What is his to what is ours he has elevated us to the height of his gifts. That you, foul Lust, lie here defeated in the dirt and cannot challenge me because of Mary is the gift of God to men. You are the way of death; you are the gateway to ruin. You stain our flesh and you plunge our spirits into the pit of Hell. Bury your head in the abyss of grief, you are a pestilence without power, you are frozen. Die, whore; go down to the damned. May you be enclosed in Hell and be thrown in the dark crevasse of night; may the blazing rivers toss you on their currents; may the flood of darkness and the pools of sulfur fling you among the rapids of their roaring streams. Never again, Prince of fiends, will you tempt Christians; their bodies will be kept clean and pure for their King!”
Prudentius ends with a warning: “How many times has sin been defeated and we have felt ourselves glow with God’s presence; how often, then, have we cooled and given in to foul desire? The war flues in our bones and man’s double nature is always in the throes of rebellion for flesh oppresses the spirit like day while the spirit that was produced by the breath of God is always hot in the bleak prison of the heart, rejecting, even in its bondage, the filth that is the flesh. The opposing winds of light and dark are at war and we, body and spirit, have desires that are at odds with one another until Christ, our Lord, comes to help. He places the jewels of the virtues in their proper places and in the place of sin builds the courts of his temple; he makes for the soul ornaments from its dark past to delight Wisdom as she reigns forever on her glorious throne.”