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Prudentius' Psychomachia
'Conflict Of The Soul'
Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 264, Lake Constance, c.900AD

Chastity (Modesty) and Lust

page 70: Chastity fights against Lust


A somewhat similar shield is shown on a 4th century AD mosaic of an amazon from Daphne, a suburb of Antioch on the Orontes (modern Antakya in southern Turkey),
and on a statue in Carthage Museum

page 71: Chastity hits Lust with a stone

page 72: Chastity stabs through Lust with a sword


page 72: Chastity rebukes the extinct Lust


page 74: Chastity washes her sword in the Jordan


page 75: Chastity stores her sword under the altar

A translation by Maureen S. O’Brien

Next on the grassy field appeared Modesty;
The virgin shines in lovely armor.
The Sodomite Lust is advancing,
whose ancestors warred with torches –
and a burning pineknot dipped in spruce tar
and sulphur, she thrusts in the maid’s eyes.
Modesty grabs for the flaming light,
and Lust tries to choke her with smoke.
But Modesty, the fearless virgin,
tosses a rock with her right hand
at the dire she-wolf’s red-hot weapon.
Thrown down, the pine torch goes out.
Then the whore’s bared neck’s bored through
with a shortsword. She vomits
hot steaming clots of infected blood;
exhaling her rotted breath,
she pollutes the neighboring air.

“She’s done,” exclaims the queen victrix,
“This will be your end, supreme one.
You’ll be flat on your face forever,
not daring to spit deadly flames
at God’s servants, men or maids.
Only Christ’s lamp kindles chaste souls.
Harasser of humans, think you can recover
doused powers, or grab breath to warm you?

“After the Assyrian bedroom?
Holofernes’ neck was chopped;
the drunk’s desire washed out in his blood.
Sharp Judith scorns the jewels and pillows
of the wife-betraying warlord
and quenches sinful frenzies with a sword.
The woman is carrying back
from the foe, a notorious trophy.
Go with unshaking hand,
bold heavensent defender!”

Maybe the strong matron’s companions
up till now were fighting
under the shadow of the Law,
Still, our times she shapes. In truth,
strength flows into earthly bodies;
the head of the great is cut off
by the weak, powerless servants.

“And after divine command already
gave an untouched virgin childbirth,
is it possible anything’s left
still to be done to you?
After the virgin birth — by which
the former origin of the human body
deserts nature, and the High Power
brings forth new flesh,
and the unmarried wife even
conceives God the Christ –
mortal man from his mother,
but divine from his Father.
Even now, from that which conceives Him,
everyone’s flesh is divine,
and takes the character of co-heirs
of God, by league of alliance.

“Of course, the Word made flesh doesn’t lose
being what it has been,
while the Word glues on experience of the flesh –
His majesty not diminishing through it,
but drawing the poor ones up to be nobler.
What He has always been remains so,
while He’s beginning to be what He’s not been.
We, who were not, are what we weren’t already;
we will be made wealthy, born into better.
He carries me back to myself,
remaining Himself. Nor does God lessen
what’s His by what’s ours; instead what is His
becomes our own; and He has carried us
up to Heaven with the gifts He granted us.

“Gifts like this — that you lie conquered,
filthy Lust, nor, after Mary,
are able to break through what’s right, what’s our duty.

“You deathroad guide, you gate of ruin,
staining the body and plunging the soul
into Tartarus! Take your gloomy head,
still cursed with cold, down to the Abyss!
Die, brotheldweller! Beg to the manes!
Be shut in Avernus, and dumped to the deeps
of the shadows of night.
May fiery streams pull you under,
may black and brimstone streams
whirl you round through resounding whirlpools –
and already, Greater one of furies,
you may not tempt Christ-worshippers,
for their cleansed bodies
will be guarded for the King.”

She said this, and glad Lust was killed dead,
Modesty washed in the Jordan’s waves
the corrupted shortsword sticky with ichor’s
red dew, and the wound-spotted shining iron.
So the victorious victrix purified the point
in the teaching river, destroying by baptism
what’d been blemished by the foe’s jugular;
nor yet was contented to sheathe the cleansed shortsword
back in its scabbard, lest rust under cover
occupy rough spots she had washed off
and eat off its sheen. In a Catholic temple
of the divine spring, she consecrated it
where it coruscates with light eternal.
Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 264
Parchment · 145 folios. · 27.3/28.3 x 21.5/22 cm · region of Lake Constance · around 900
Language: Latin, German
Manuscript Summary: The richly illustrated Prudentius manuscript, created around 900 in the region of Lake Constance, is counted among the outstanding examples of Carolingian book art. It contains all seven poems published by Prudentius in the year 405 as well as a later added eighth work. The codex was given to the episcopal church of Strasbourg by Bishop Erchenbald of Strasbourg (965-991) and later came into the possession of Jacques Bongars.
Source: Bern, Stadtbibliothek, Ms. 264

Prudentius (born in 348 in northern Spain, died after 405) spent most of his life following worldly pursuits, but later turned to writing, in which he aimed to glorify God and atone for his earlier sins. One of his most popular works is a poem called Psychomachia (Conflict of the Soul), which describes the battles between female personifications of human virtues and vices.

'Abraham and Lot', Psychomachia by Prudentius, Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 264, Lake Constance, c.900AD
'Long-Suffering Being Escorted Unharmed Through An Army By Job', Psychomachia by Prudentius, Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 264, Lake Constance, c.900AD

Other Illustrations from Prudentius' Psychomachia manuscripts
Carolingian Illustrations of Costume and Soldiers