By Matt Aleksinas

Medieval trees of virtues and vices depicted a spectrum of human qualities, from the basest earthliness (capital vices) to heavenly righteousness (cardinal virtues). They provided a structure in which monks could interpret and contemplate the associations between each abstraction. In the trees of Beinecke MS 416, chief virtues and vices are linked to subordinate traits, which make explicit the connections between various good and evil qualities. In this framework, monks learned to associate minor sins with greater vices and good qualities with principal virtues.

The seven clusters of fruit on the tree of virtues and tree of vices have a biblical origin: the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit found in Galatians 5.22. In our diagrams the fruits and branches of the tree of virtues point to toward Heaven, while the withering branches of the tree of vices droop toward Hell.

Click to view translation of the Tree of Virtues
Click to view a translation of the Tree of Virtues.

Click to view translation of the Tree of Vices
Click to view a translation of the Tree of Vices.


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The Tree of Virtues

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The pot below the tree of virtues claims that "humility is root of the virtues." The inscription below asserts, "The tree of joy does not bear bitter fruit. But, extending itself abundantly, it bears the knowledgeable to celestial things." Moving up the tree from humility, the initial inscription states that the first four branches signify the way toward life. The four theological virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude) provide the categories under which subordinate virtues are arranged. The next inscription on the trunk states that the upper three branches denote the fruits of the spirit. The three cardinal virtues (faith, charity, and hope) serve as the overarching categories for this tier.

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Prudence is given first position on the tree of virtues. Following humility, prudence was viewed as an essential virtue in monasticism, as monks connected careful forethought with God's divine plan.

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Figure 2

 

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Charity, the most important virtue in Benedictine monasticism, is given the highest station on the tree of virtues. Thought of as bringing goodness to the soul, charity signifies God's gift to the world, Christ, who sacrificed his life to redeem his followers. As a result of their study of the Rule of St. Benedict, which stressed this principle like no other, monks believed charity to be the supreme virtue.

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Figure 3

 

The Tree of Vices

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Beginning in the depths of human error, the tree of vices in Beinecke MS 416 has pride at its root. An inscription on the pot declares "pride is the root of the vices." The inscription below proclaims in verse that "the tree of sadness produces bitter fruits / which makes those knowledgeable of evil drink from the brine of the Stygian dregs." The first medallion on the trunk announces that the lower four branches signify the "way toward death." Above, another inscription proclaims that the top three shoots contain the fruits of the flesh.

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As allegories of the vices developed, avarice took center stage in monastic thought. Monks were particularly critical of the ambitious mercantile class that developed in the second half of the medieval period. In our tree, avarice is given a prominent place as the first category of vice after the root of pride.

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Lust is placed at the pinnacle of the tree. This was a daunting vice for monks, whose celibate vocation and physical isolation from the rest of society made imperative the struggle against sexual impulses.

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Figure 6