British Library, Add MS 24199, part 1, 10th century
British Library, Add MS 24199, part 1, 10th century
Psychomachia, as the "battle between good and evil", on a Romanesque capital, Monastery of Sant Cugat, Catalonia, Spain
Psychomachia, as the "battle between good and evil", on a Romanesque capital, Monastery of Sant Cugat, Catalonia, Spain

The Psychomachia (Battle of Spirits or Soul War) is a poem by the Late Antique Latin poet Prudentius, from the early fifth century AD.[1] It has been considered to be the first and most influential "pure" medieval allegory, the first in a long tradition of works as diverse as the Romance of the Rose, Everyman, and Piers Plowman; however, a manuscript discovered in 1931 of a speech by the Second Century Academic Skeptic philosopher Favorinus employs psychomachia, suggesting that he may have invented the technique.[2]

In slightly less than a thousand lines, the poem describes the conflict of vices and virtues as a battle in the style of Virgil's Aeneid. Christian faith is attacked by and defeats pagan idolatry to be cheered by a thousand Christian martyrs. The work was extremely popular, and survives in many medieval manuscripts, 20 of them illustrated.[3] It may be the subject of wall paintings in the churches at Claverley, Shropshire, and at Pyrford, Surrey, both in England. In the early twelfth century it was a common theme for sculptural programmes on facades of churches in western France, such as Aulnay, Charente-Maritime.[4]

The word may be used more generally for the common theme of the "battle between good and evil", for example in sculpture.


The plot consists of the personified virtues of Hope, Sobriety, Chastity, Humility, etc. fighting the personified vices of Pride, Wrath, Paganism, Avarice, etc. The personifications are women because in Latin, words for abstract concepts have feminine grammatical gender; an uninformed reader of the work might take the story literally as a tale of many angry women fighting one another, because Prudentius provides no context or explanation of the allegory.[5]

In a similar manner, various vices fight corresponding virtues and are always defeated. Biblical figures that exemplify these virtues also appear (e.g. Job as an example of patience).

Despite the fact that seven virtues defeat seven vices, they are not the canonical seven deadly sins, nor the three theological and four cardinal virtues.

Notable manuscripts

Other uses of 'psychomachia'

Theatre historian, Jonas Barish uses the term psychomachia to describe anti-theatrical conflict during the nineteenth century.[8]


  1. ^ Holcomb
  2. ^ Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, "Later Greek Voices on the Predicament of Exile: from Teles to Plutarch and Favorinus", in: J. F. Gaertner (Ed.), Writing Exile: The Discourse of Displacement in Greco-Roman Antiquity and Beyond, Leiden 2007 ISBN 9004155155 p 104
  3. ^ Holcomb, 69–71
  4. ^ Anat Tcherikover: High Romanesque Sculpture in the Duchy of Aquitaine c.1090-1140, 148-151. Clarendon Press, Oxford 1997 ISBN 0-19-817410-1.
  5. ^ William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman (2001). Discovering the Middle Ages. The Teaching Company. ISBN 1-56585-701-1
  6. ^ Burgerbibliothek Cod. 264 (
  7. ^ Holcomb, 69–71
  8. ^ See Antitheatricality § 19th and early 20th century (psychomachia).