The Medieval Worldview: Dante’s Divine Comedy

Many historical writers, if asked to identify one single work as somehow embodying the “medieval worldview,” would point to Dante’s Divine Comedy, composed during the period 1308–21. This massive poem, more than 14 000 lines long, is widely seen as an imaginative poetic vision of a medieval way of thinking about the world, life and death, and especially hell and heaven. The title often puzzles English readers, who assume that the term “Comedy” implies something amusing or funny. However, Dante originally entitled his work with the single Italian word Commedia, which is better translated as “Drama.” The additional term “divine” appears to have been added by a Venetian publisher at a later stage.

Its author, Dante Aligheri (1265–1321) was born into a well-established family in the city of Florence, which was at that time an independent Italian city-state. Dante became involved in political intrigues in Florence, and incurred the anger of influential Florentine families, who forced him into exile. It was during this enforced absence from Florence that he began to write the major work which we now know as the Divine Comedy.

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Dante’s Divine Comedy tells of the poet’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Written in a complex pentameter form known as terza rima, the poem is a magnificent synthesis of the medieval outlook, picturing a changeless universe ordered by God. It con- sists of three interconnected poems, entitled Inferno (“Hell”), Purgatorio (“Purgatory”), and Paradiso (“Paradise”). The poem describes an imaginary spiritual journey which takes place in Holy Week 1300. Clues in the text allow its readers to work out that the journey begins at nightfall on Good Friday – the day on which the Christian church marks the death of Jesus of Nazareth on the cross. After entering Hell, Dante journeys downwards for an entire day, before beginning his ascent towards Purgatory. After climbing Mount Purgatory, Dante rises further until he eventually enters into the presence of God, conclud- ing his journey on the Wednesday following Easter Day.