There goes my cool air of untouchability again….
Our old friend Prudentius the Latin poet gets dissed a lot. Everybody rips on him, and they rip on Psychomachia the most. It’s didactic, and moralizing, and allegorical, too! SHAME! FIE!
So if it stinks so bad, you might ask, how has it survived all these years? In so many manuscript copies? Profusely illustrated ones, yet?
Because Psychomachia (The Soul Battle) does not stink. It’s not maybe to modern tastes, but it’s full of violence, Virgil references, and other fun stuff. The moral speeches may have justified the fun, but they don’t remove it. (And since they’re actually more like victory speeches or warrior boasts, they were right down the Middle Ages’ alley. Especially if you were a monk who kinda wished you’d been born a little earlier into your family, so that you could go forth and slay things.) Also, the personified Virtues and Vices fighting each other over the fate of the human soul are both as feminine as the gender of the Latin terms for them, so you get both the Amazon and virgin saint with a big sword vibe. Marketing couldn’t possibly improve this sucker, unless you made it into an anime.
If it weren’t for Prudentius, we wouldn’t commonly think in terms of the Seven Virtues or the Seven Deadly Sins. And I wouldn’t have gotten to go to a cool SCA event with that theme — the latest in a long line of Virtue vs. Vice throwdowns at tournaments and melees in the Middle Ages and after.
However, I’m too cheap right now to spring for the Thomson translation (which for all I know, might be boring). And unfortunately, Tolkien didn’t translate the sucker. I’m still looking for a period public domain translation, but here’s the start of mine — a Christian unarmed combat Virtue vs. a heavily armed pagan Vice!
I’m afraid I went for “the translator is a traitor, and the poetic translator can do whatever she wants” mode. Sorry. I like literal, but I like exciting, too. So I’ll indicate what I added with italics. Also, we all know that the niceties of competent Latin comprehension (like what word modified what other word) are all too often lost on me, while other times I’m being poetic and changing modifiers on purpose. Lo, I am a slacker. (But I do appreciate comments.)
First of the fighters to face the field
and the doubt of the duel’s fate,
Faith came forward, disheveled and messy,
dressed like a farmgirl from far in the country:
Bushy hair untrimmed with bowl or beautician,
shoulders bared to give biceps an airing.
Heat to get glory had her boiling over
all of a sudden, in fact, for this new deed.
War nor weapons nor girding of armor –
She paid no nevermind. Trusting the might
Of her heart and her hands, raging and reckless,
she challenges battle-chance, meaning to smash it.
Behold who dares head out to harass her
with matching might, to strike first and fiercest –
TheOldGodsWorship. Her hostile head,
Decked with ribbons and medals of honor,
Is made to wobble, then rises higher –
Till her besmeared mouth, sated on sheep’s blood,
Is thrown down to earth and lands underfoot.
Her baleful breath was stopped up and broken,
her trafficking stuffed down her gullet to throttle
her weary and obstinate long dying sigh.
The victrix of the Lord’s legion exults,
and Queen Faith heartens the thousands of martyrs
She has gathered against the foe. In praise,
She crowns with flowers the strong allies made
And orders them robed in flaming red-purple.
(Flaming purple just sounds wrong, unless you remember that Roman purple was pretty darned red.)