Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

Article of the Month

Indexers select an article or essay at the beginning of each month that is outstanding in its line of argument, wealth of significances, and writing style. We particularly look for pieces that will be useful as course readings.

September 2023

Image of a page from a medieval manuscript
Faith (Fides) opposes Worship of the Gods (Cultura Deorum), Prudentius, Psychomachia, ca. 900, German (Source: e-codices, CC BY-NC 4.0- Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International ) Manuscript description.

Breen, Katharine. "Personification and Gender Fluidity in the Psychomachia and Its Early Reception." Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies 97, 4 ( 2022): Pages 965 - 1011. Available with a subscription: https://doi.org/10.1086/721645

Abstract: This essay argues against the widespread critical assumption that the Psychomachia’s personifications of Virtues are poorly executed allegorical goddesses. On the contrary, it finds that the Virtues’ transgressions of gender norms were central to Prudentius’s poetic project and were generally understood and appreciated as such by the poem’s late classical readers. Reading the Psychomachia alongside several early responses to Prudentius’s work—including the letters of Sidonius Apollinaris, Avitus of Vienne’s verse epistle De consolatoria castitatis laude, and the advice treatise Ad Gregoriam in palatio—demonstrates that Prudentius and his late classical readers and imitators valued personifications as sites of gender fluidity and gender transformation. These fifth- and sixth-century texts encourage men to use personification to imagine themselves as women, and women to use personification to imagine themselves as men, while projecting a state between genders or beyond gender as the ideal human condition. Although the gender identities imagined in these texts are not progressive in the modern sense of the term, and indeed depend on elements of deep-seated misogyny, they collectively map out a much broader and more flexible sex-gender system than the one assumed by the Psychomachia’s twentieth-century critics." — [Reproduced from the article page of Speculum from the University of Chicago Press website]