The Anglo-Saxon Psychomachia Manuscripts

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 research statement is below

The Anglo-Saxon Psychomachia

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

The Early Medieval Psychomachia manuscripts are unusual in the corpus of both Early Medieval English manuscripts and medieval editions of the text. The English manuscripts are understudied, despite being one of the most prevalent non-liturgical illustrated texts extant from the period, and are thus perfectly situated to consider their importance as evidence of Early Medieval English ideologies, manuscript production, and audiences.

Written by Prudentius in the fifth century, the widely-circulated poem is an early allegorical treatment of vice and virtue in battle; it describes how vices and virtues compete in bloody combat to determine whether sin or righteousness will win out in the Christian soul. The text circulated in England by the end of the eighth century and survives in around a dozen manuscript copies from before 1100, including three complete or nearly complete illustrated versions and a folio of a fourth; the number of surviving manuscripts testifies to the importance of the text and its image cycle to the period. The English manuscripts subtly manipulate their continental exemplars’ gender schema to fit English preoccupations with righteousness and gender. Classifying these along modern binary gender understandings is unworkable, as doing so obfuscates intentional gender changes, gender confusion, and the range of attitudes to the body demonstrated by the text, its illustrations, and contemporary Early Medieval English writings. They are also more lavishly decorated than previously recognised, with silver lettering evident in both illustrated and unillustrated versions of the poem. These silver initials also challenge us to consider our approaches to deluxe vs “average” manuscripts and how we approach related manuscripts showing differing levels of skill, completion, and materials. This study will demonstrate how the silver initials and gender schema are both key pieces of evidence in understanding in the Psychomachia’s early history in England, including audience composition and gendered understandings of righteousness. In doing this, it will also analyse and problematise established assumptions around audience, gender debates, and our approaches to the materiality of manuscripts.

The Psychomachia: Literature to Date and Why This Study, Now

To date, there has been no sustained study of the English corpus of manuscripts. While the manuscripts have been considered in studies on the art historical development of personifications, this will represent the first art historical monograph of the English manuscripts. Helen Woodruff’s 1930 The Illustrated Manuscripts of Prudentius (Cambridge: Harvard UP) is the last monograph on the Psychomachia illustrated manuscript corpus and followed the 1895 publication of Richard Stettiner’s first monograph-length work on the manuscripts, Die Illustrierten Prudentiushandschriften (Druck von JS Press). Other art historical studies, such as Jean Norman’s 1988 book Metamorphoses of an Allegory: The Iconography of the Psychomachia in Medieval Art (New York: Lang), consider the Psychomachia as a motif used in different medias across the Middle Ages. Thus, studies to date treat the Psychomachia manuscript corpus as a whole or as part of a wider corpus of personifications, with no recourse to the importance of the Early English manuscripts to the Psychomachia tradition more broadly or to Early Medieval England in particular. Subsequent scholarship has considered aspects of the English manuscripts, including the architecture of the representations in the cycles (Mark Atherton in the Bulletin of the John Rylands University of Manchester 79 (1997): 263–85), gender representation in the Cambridge Corpus Christi College manuscript (Catherine Karkov in Anglo-Saxon England 30 (2001), 115-136), and the illustration’s development in England (Gernot Wieland in Anglo-Saxon England 16 (1987): 213–31, Anglo-Saxon England 26 (1997): 169–86). The Cambridge manuscript, moreover, is the only manuscript to be subject to in-depth analysis in English which considers all parts of the manuscript; it describes and superficially analyses the image cycles, traces the likely origins of the manuscript, and provides transcriptions and translations of the image and marginal captions (Budny, Mildred. Insular, Anglo-Saxon, and Early Norman Manuscript Art at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. University of Michigan, 1997). Yet, it fails to fully consider the images alongside their English contemporaries. British Library MS Additional 24199 and MS Cotton Cleopatra C.viii require similar considerations. Therefore, the proposed study looks to rectify the absence of a monograph devoted to the English Psychomachia manuscripts while drawing on modern theories to recentre them in the canon of medieval English manuscripts.

Frameworks for Study

The study will reflect the three languages evident in the manuscripts themselves – Latin, Old English, and the visual – and place the works in key theoretical frameworks, including drawing upon the works of Judith Butler, Michael Camille, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Madeline Caviness, Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna, Clare Lees, Karma Lochrie, and Gillian Overing. The interdisciplinary necessity to fully understand the Early Medieval English Psychomachia means that the study has the potential to impact Gender Studies, Manuscript Studies, Art History, and Medieval Studies. For example, the Psychomachia and its gendered portrayals of vice and virtue offer an opportunity to decentre the traditional masculine assumptions in order to question the audience’s composition in a way that asks how meaning can be constituted if our default is a feminine or genderless perspective. By considering gender and queer theories that problematise time and place, then, the imprecise dating and original locations of the manuscripts are not problems to solve, but rather ways of retracing how a manuscript might move, and the audience change as a manuscript moves from place to place, creating new meaning and providing a sliding scale on which to interpret the manuscripts and their gendered representations.

Study Outcomes

A monograph is the key outcome of the study.  It will be divided into three main sections that reflect the key branches of the project. The first (“The Psychomachia: in England, in a Corpus, and in History”) will establish the new palaeographical and art historical evidence available. It will explore the likelihood of a two-stage introduction into England, with the introduction of unillustrated manuscripts in 9thCentury against the backdrop of Alfred’s reforms and importation of texts (supported by earliest extant copies of the text) and illustrated during the 10th Century against the backdrop of Edgar and the monastic reform. It will also establish the theoretical framework and the necessary historiography to understanding the later chapters. The second section (“Glittering Letters: Lessons from the Psychomachiaon the Significance of Elaboration in Medieval Manuscripts”) will utilize the silver letters in order to question our assumptions about manuscripts, the materials used, their status, and their use. It will also explore the reasons for the use of silver letters and what they tell us about how we understand the importance and patronage of different contemporary medieval manuscripts from England and Europe more broadly; it will also contextualise the silver as indicative of contemporary importance of the manuscripts despite scholarly neglect. The third section (“Gender & Iconography: Understanding Images to Understand Textual Implications”) will consider the gender schema as established in previous publications while expanding consideration of other vice and virtue pairs. It will also consider other iconography (such as the church and baptizing the sword) that can be gendered as a way to further establish the artistic goals of the scribes in upholding and queering righteous behaviour. Supplemental material from marginal captions will also be used to help decipher the changing imagery of vice and virtue and give ideas of how to interpret the programs through multiple lenses. Finally, the book will include a series of appendices that complement the study and are designed to encourage further scholarly work on the manuscripts, including a chart showing the differences in iconography across the manuscripts, with an accompanying breakdown of the gender representation therein, and translations and transcriptions of the Latin and Old English marginal captions from each manuscript.

Ultimately, this study aims to locate the Psychomachia at the intersection of manuscript production, gender debates, and audiences’ uses through an art historical approach that draws on interdisciplinary methodologies and theories to highlight the importance of the manuscripts to Early Medieval England. The interdisciplinary frameworks for the project will ensure that the research’s importance is evident in fields beyond Art History and Medieval Studies. The study outcome will help expand our understanding of how the Psychomachia was received and operated in England and encourage further study of the manuscripts; the outcome will also help renew and reshape contemporary understandings of manuscript production, audience compositions, and gender representation in Early Medieval England.