The Anglo-Saxon Psychomachia Manuscripts

My work on the Psychomachia manuscripts stems from the third case study of my PhD thesis. There, I considered the gender of the figures, including the instability of their gender representation in select images and what it means for understanding gender in Late Anglo-Saxon England. Expanding this focus, I am now working on a wider study of the manuscripts, incorporating the unillustrated manuscripts and expanding my initial observations. A research statement is below.

I have presented my research at a variety of conferences, including at the 2018 Gender & Medieval Studies Conference at the University of Oxford and the British Library Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms Early Career Symposium in December 2018, and plan to continue to do so as the research develops. My initial observations to be published by the Medieval Feminist Forum in Spring 2019.

 

 

The Anglo-Saxon Psychomachia

Form, Audience, & Function in Late Anglo-Saxon England 

The aim of my current research is to enhance the knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon Psychomachia manuscripts. The text survives in nine manuscript copies, including three illustrated copies, testifying to the importance of the text and its image cycle to the period. The Psychomachia itself witnesses the Late Anglo-Saxon understanding of righteousness through literature on the vice and virtues. Focusing on the illustrated manuscripts, and drawing on the unillustrated manuscripts, the study considers how the text, the illustrations, and the different captions reflect contemporary ideologies around Christian life, the tenth-century monastic reform, Anglo-Saxon gender conceptions, and manuscript production. It is anticipated that the project will result in a monograph on the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts that presents the findings.

The Psychomachia literature lacks a cohesive monograph considering the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts as a corpus. The present study, then, builds on the gender considerations of my PhD while looking more broadly at the manuscripts in Anglo-Saxon England to better contextualize the Psychomachia’s place in the period in terms of production, audience, and function.

The study is conceived as three interlocking sections. The first outlines the provenance of the manuscripts, tracing the introduction of the text and accompanying image cycle into Anglo-Saxon England before seeking to establish where the Anglo-Saxon illustrated manuscripts were created. This builds on and furthers existing scholarship that assigns the manuscripts alternatively to Malmesbury of Canterbury. By revisiting the current assignations alongside comparisons to the image and textual differences of the wider corpus of Anglo-Saxon Psychomachia manuscripts it is hoped that assignations can be made more concretely and a scenario for the illustrated exemplar posited that helps clarify the reasons for the popularity of illustrated and unillustrated editions at likely different moments in the wider Anglo-Saxon period. The second part analyses the images specifically, comparing the Anglo-Saxon cycles to their Carolingian and Ottonian counterparts. The gender analysis, moreover, of the images reveals the development of gender and discourses around it in Late Anglo-Saxon England, helping to define gender in the period. This section will also address how the manuscripts reflect wider Anglo-Saxon traditions in and developments of illustration, providing a wider context for understanding the Psychomachia’s iconography within Anglo-Saxon art. Thirdly, questions of audience will be considered. The other sections lend themselves to discussions of who the manuscripts were intended for, and how the manuscripts functioned as didactic aids. Questions to be asked include: Do intended audiences differ between scriptoria? Are intended audiences defined along terms of identifiers such as social rank, gender, (il)literacy, and/or laity and religious? Or, are audiences considered more generally as Anglo-Saxon Christian souls?

Such a study has the potential to not only further discussions within Anglo-Saxon studies, including about the history, religious practices, and art, but within medieval manuscript studies and early medieval art history more broadly. Furthermore, the gender framework that Anglo-Saxon artists worked within also presents the opportunity to develop contemporary gender theory, pushing boundaries as to how we understand gender in the past and present. While the project is ambitious in its nature, its completion will show the applicability of modern theory to Late Anglo-Saxon England, while demonstrating the overarching importance of the Psychomachiato Anglo-Saxon art and thought.