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Dante's Divine Comedy and the Growth of Literature in the Middle Ages

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  • 0:05 Who Was Dante?
  • 1:40 The Divine Comedy
  • 4:45 How Was This Poem Unique?
  • 5:39 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Jessica Elam Miller

Jessica has taught college History and has a Master of Arts in History

Dante Alighieri was a poet and philosopher from Florence during a time of political unrest. This article explores one of his most well-known poems and its impact on literature and Italian society.

Who Was Dante?

Poet Dante Alighieri
Dante Alighieri

Many have heard the name 'Dante,' but how much do you know about him or his impact on literature? Dante's full name is Dante Alighieri, and he was a poet in the Middle Ages. He was also interested in philosophy and politics. He studied the poetry of classic poets like Cicero, Ovid, and Virgil. As a child, he met a woman named Beatrice Portinari, who he was friends with for several years. Dante fought for Florence when he was young and also held public office. He fought in the Battle of Campaldino in 1289. He also became an apothecary to help his political career but never actually practiced as one.

In the 13th century, Florence was experiencing political turmoil. Dante was allied with the White Guelphs, a political faction who opposed the Pope. Dante visited the Pope on a diplomatic quest but was detained by the papal authorities. In his absence, Florence was terrorized by the Black Guelphs, a political faction who supported the Pope. In 1302, as the government came under the influence of the Black Guelphs, Dante was charged and convicted of crimes he was thought never to have committed. He was exiled from Florence under the threat of execution if he returned. While in exile, Dante traveled from one place to another, never settling in one place as home and always remembering Florence as such.

The Divine Comedy

Dante wrote several works, but The Divine Comedy was the most well-known and influential. The structure of the work is a long poem divided into sections called cantos. Comedy includes 100 cantos that can be grouped into three sections: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. There are 33 cantos within each of these sections, making the divine number of three, like the Holy Trinity, present in the structure.

Dante wrote that there are nine circles of Hell.
Dante Hell

The plot is about one man who is generally assumed to represent Dante himself. The man goes on a journey visiting souls in Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Heaven (Paradiso). He is guided by two other people. Virgil leads the man through Hell and Purgatory. Beatrice leads the man through Heaven. The journey of the man through these places can be seen as representing Dante's exile from his home as well as the Christian idea of man becoming distanced from God. During Dante's visit to the Inferno, he meets with souls that are damned to remain in Hell. It is revealed that Hell is divided into nine circles, each with their own designated group of sins.

The first circle is designated to those who are unbaptized and those who were born before Jesus lived. Other circles hold gluttonous sinners, those who commit violent acts, and those guilty of fraud. The ninth circle of Hell holds traitors. Satan is here. He is a three-headed beast. In each of his three mouths, he is chewing on the worst sinners: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. Because Satan's presence was already felt in the souls Dante met, his meeting with Satan is anticlimactic.

After visiting Inferno, Dante and Virgil proceed to Purgatory. Purgatory is a mountain on an island. The mountain has seven terraces corresponding to the seven deadly sins in Catholic doctrine. As they travel through Purgatory, the two meet souls guilty of each of the seven sins. As he approaches each terrace, he finds the inhabitants in various positions shouting out penance for their punishment. For example, those condemned to stay on the lustful terrace are forced to walk in fire and shout examples of chastity.

People shout out penance as their punishment in Purgatory.
Dante Purgatory

At the end of his journey, Dante must walk through a wall of flames and falls asleep. Dante is led by Beatrice into Heaven the day after his journey through Purgatory. Beatrice leads Dante through nine levels of Heaven, where they stop to speak to souls in each. Within these levels, he meets many saints like Peter, John, and Thomas Aquinas. In the highest level of Heaven, Dante sees Mary and the Holy Trinity. God shares with Dante spiritual knowledge, and Dante's soul becomes at one with God. This happy ending is the reason the poem is titled and referred to as a comedy.

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