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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 4 - Medieval Narrative  


Dante Alighieri, an Italian poet who lived between the years l265 and l32l, is best known as the author of a remarkable verse narrative in three volumes, called The Divine Comedy, but originally titled simply The Comedy (or La Commedia) by Dante himself. In this poem, the protagonist Dante, a projection of the author himself, journeys from hell (the Inferno) to purgatory (Purgatorio), and finally to heaven itself (Paradiso). In describing this spiritual progression, Dante's poem depicts the political landscape of thirteenth-century Italy and reflects the moral and religious dilemmas of the citizens of Florence. Despite the specificity of Dante's narrative, readers find that the poem mirrors their own worlds and situations, however far removed from medieval Italy they may be. Nevertheless, some understanding of the particular circumstances in which Dante himself lived and wrote is helpful.

Dante was a serious student of theology, philosophy, and poetry, and an activist in the treacherous political life of his native city Florence, particularly in its dealings with the ambitious Pope at that time, Boniface VIII. In Dante's day, those favoring the authority of the Pope were called Guelphs while those appealing to the authority of the German Emperor were referred to as Ghibellines. Around l30l Dante, himself a Ghibelline, went to Rome as part of a delegation objecting to a papal claim on the city of Florence. Pope Boniface, in the meantime, was instrumental in handing over the city of Florence to Charles of Valois, brother of his ally, the king of France. Charles set up a Guelph government, which exiled Dante and confiscated his property. Although Boniface was still alive at the time when the fictional Dante is in hell (April 1300), nevertheless in the poem (written between 1308 and 1321) Dante anticipates the ultimate damnation of Boniface.

Distinct from Dante the Florentine poet and statesman is Dante the pilgrim within The Commedia. The latter is Everysoul in its journey through life in search of God. This imagined journey takes place on several levels. Spatially, Dante travels from the lower depths of earth, where hell was thought to be located,(1) to the mount of purgatory, a place where people expiated the punishment still due to sins forgiven in life. Finally, Dante continues traveling upward through the various stellar circles to the Empyrean of God's presence.

In using historical characters and events to embody his ideas, Dante introduces a startling and dramatic innovation. Rather than employ allegorical abstractions like Greed warring on Charity, or Hope conquering Despair, common themes with so many other writers, the author uses characters and circumstances from real life. This technique helps to account for some of the stark realism in the Comedy.

Together with the realism, however, Dante continues to employ allegory. He uses both devices simultaneously so that a situation or a personage that seems historically self-explanatory actually may have multiple hidden dimensions embedded in the composed allegory, or simply suggested to stimulate allegorical interpretation consonant with the piece as a whole. In either case, he invites the reader to ferret out as much meaning as possible.

Key ideas in Dante's world are those of intellect, will, and revelation. Medieval philosophers and theologians maintained that the two highest faculties in human beings were the intellect, which had the attainment of truth as its object, and the will, which was ordained to pursue what it perceived to be good. God was the Summum Verum et Bonum, the ultimate truth and goodness toward which the human intellect and will needed to be ordered. But since intellect and will were clouded and weakened by sin, they needed revelation and grace, that is Scripture and God's benevolence, as a corrective guide. Sin was in some way connected with the misuse of intellect and will. Those who died without repenting their sins, providing the sins were sufficiently serious, went to hell, a place of eternal torment. Dante's Inferno plays out that principle, with the added idea that the punishment should in some way be related to the earthly sin.

Dante's Guides

As the Inferno opens, Dante is lost in a dark wood, unable to make his way through a frightening, allegorically charged landscape. He is rescued by the Roman poet, Virgil, author of the Aeneid, who represents, among other things, the embodiment of human reason unaided by Divine Revelation. In the Middle Ages, Virgil was held in prophetic esteem because one of his early poems, the Fourth Eclogue, seemed to medieval readers to prophesy the coming of Jesus, who was born several years after Virgil died. Pagan and unbaptized, Virgil represents the farthest reaches of unaided human reason in its quest for God. He can act as counselor and guide to Dante through the forest of sin and error, but only as far as the thirtieth canto of the Purgatory. Beyond that point, Revelation rather than reason must be the guide to the heavenly domain of God.

Virgil first explains to Dante that contrary to hell, purgatory is a place that cleanses the souls guilty of misguided love. Whereas the sins of the damned in hell include incontinence, violence, and fraud, the sins of those suffering in purgatory comprise misdirected love, insufficient love, or uncontrolled love, which coalesce in the seven deadly sins of pride, envy, and wrath (misdirected love), sloth (insufficient love), and avarice, gluttony, and lust (uncontrolled love).

After the thirtieth canto of the Purgatorio, Beatrice replaces Virgil. The symbol of revelation and divine grace, Beatrice may have had a human counterpart, Beatrice Portinari, born in l266. Although scholars debate her identity, the issue is an unnecessary and distracting one. Dante endows the Beatrice of the Comedy with mythic dimensions, making her a madonna figure in stained glass who reflects the light of divinity and guides the pilgrim toward salvation.

In the last third of the Poem, Dante explores a range of theological issues, and then passes a series of tests that qualify him to enter into the presence of divinity. St. Peter examines Dante's understanding of faith in a manner reminiscent of medieval university life. St. James the Apostle examines his understanding of hope, and St. John his understanding of love (also called charity). In the last cantos of the poem, in Paradise, the terminus or final destiny of human intellect and will, Dante sees the Empyrean, the highest heaven and the abode of divinity. In the thirty-first canto of the Paradiso, Dante's final guide, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, representing Contemplation, replaces Beatrice, who resumes her position high in the white rose of heaven. Within this rose (one of the major medieval symbols of perfection), like petals, are the legendary figures of Judeo-Christian history, among them Adam, Moses, Eve, Rachel, Sarah, Rebecca, Judith, Mary, John the Baptist, Augustine, and Bernard. In the final canto, the narrator addresses the Divine with repetitions of the word light, "Light Eternal" and "Light Supreme," and concludes his pilgrimage by rapturously uniting his will to the "Love that moves the sun and the other stars."

Organizing Motifs of Dante's Comedy

The Commedia contains 100 cantos, or chapters; the first canto of the Inferno generally is considered an introduction, so that each of the three books comprises 33 chapters, a significant number, since Jesus supposedly died at the age of 33. The number three stands for the Trinity, the union of God the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit (the spirit of divine inspiration).

Written in a verse form called Terza Rima, or triple rhyme, Dante's poem comprises interlocked three-line stanzas which repeat the three-in-one formula in an endless variety of patterns. This sense of pattern reflects Dante's vision of a divinely ordered universe; the more closely one examines the Commedia, the more patterns one discovers in it. Each of the three books of the poem, for example, concludes with the word "stars," directing the reader to contemplate the perfection of God's heavenly will. Like the Christian universe the work delineates, where sin receives perfectly calibrated punishment and virtue earns due reward, Dante's poem is a miracle of coherence and a unique embodiment of the medieval view of an orderly and sanctified world.


1. One medieval writer cited the increasing activity of volcanoes as evidence that hell was filling up.