Dante and Violence
Domestic, Civic, Cosmic
- Helen and Howard Marraro Prize in Italian Literature
This study explores how Dante represents violence in the Comedy and reveals the connection between contemporary private and public violence and civic and canon law violations.
Although a number of articles have addressed particular aspects of violence in discrete parts of Dante’s oeuvre, a systematic treatment of violence in the Commedia is lacking. This ambitious overview of violence in Dante’s literary works and his world examines cases of violence in the domestic, communal, and cosmic spheres while taking into account medieval legal approaches to rights and human freedom that resonate with the economy of justice developed in the Commedia. Exploring medieval concerns with violence both in the home and in just war theory, as well as the Christian theology of the Incarnation and Redemption, Brenda Deen Schildgen examines violence in connection to the natural rights theory expounded by canon lawyers beginning in the twelfth century. Partially due to the increased attention to its Greco-Roman cultural legacy, the twelfth-century Renaissance produced a number of startling intellectual developments, including the emergence of codified canon law and a renewed interest in civil law based on Justinian’s sixth-century Corpus juris civilis. Schildgen argues that, in addition to “divine justice,” Dante explores how the human system of justice, as exemplified in both canon and civil law and based on natural law and legal concepts of human freedom, was consistently violated in the society of his era. At the same time, the redemptive violence of the Crucifixion, understood by Dante as the free act of God in choosing the Incarnation and death on the cross, provides the model for self-sacrifice for the communal good. This study, primarily focused on Dante’s representation of his contemporary reality, demonstrates that the punishments and rewards in Dante’s heaven and hell, while ostensibly a staging of his vision of eternal justice, may in fact be a direct appeal to his readers to recognize the crimes that pervade their own world.
Dante and Violence will have a wide readership, including students and scholars of Dante, medieval culture, violence, and peace studies.
Introduction: Violence in the Commedia
1. Freedom, Natural Law, and Love
2. Violence in the Domestic Sphere in the Commedia
3. Killing Fields and the Cross in the Heavens
4. Redemptive Violence: The Cross, Sacrifice, and the “Giusta Vendetta”
Conclusion: Violence, Poetry, and History
“Dante and Violence directly engages with important recent studies and the related domains of medieval legal, political, and religious thought. Close reading of passages from Dante and cross-references to episodes or figures from his work help to demonstrate how and why the explanations of contemporary medieval thought inform the analysis of the poema sacro.” —Catherine Keen, author of Dante and the City
"Schildgen has written a groundbreaking study of Dante and violence. Dante and Violence will be of value to all those interested in a great thinker’s views on a paramount and enduring topic—one whose relevance, moreover, never diminishes." —Teodolinda Barolini, editor of Dante's Lyric Poetry
"Schildgen takes on a seemingly obvious aspect of Dante’s Commedia, acknowledging the many ways his subject requires grisly treatments. But rather than simply offering another account of violent punishment in the poem, she examines how 'the Commedia represents interpersonal, collective, and cosmic violence or coercion in three spheres of the poet’s historic world.'" —Choice
"Nothing but the highest commendation for the author’s in-depth analysis of the chosen case studies, her erudite use of sources, and her conclusions, particularly with regard to justified and unjustified war." —Symposium
To write of violence in Dante’s Commedia might at first glance appear to belabor the obvious. When they first read of the horrific punishments assigned to those condemned in hell, even callow undergraduates, used to the expansive brutality of video games and contemporary media-vision, are shocked by the poem’s gruesome violence. Eternally howling winds, torrents of rain, mud, and fire; lakes of ice, rivers of blood, perpetually itching sores; eternally maimed, entombed, drowning, and dismembered or frozen bodies: such are the wages for sin in the Inferno. We see enacted a brutal application of the lex talionis, a system of retribution demanding an “eye for an eye,” a judicial system that Dante assigns to God’s eschatological justice. These concrete punishments have led to the accusation that Dante is a hyena, who makes poetry in a cemetery (Nietzsche) or a “mystical sadist,” whose system of punishment constitutes a vendetta that goes far beyond the limits of what humans might consider justice. Some twentieth-century theologians have held Dante’s persuasive infernal vision partly responsible for reinforcing the idea of a frightening and vengeful divinity at the expense of a loving God. Dante’s visceral representation of violence clearly refuses to hide its repugnance, making him a forceful witness in exposing its brutal consequences.
The purgative punishments of the second realm represent many other types of violence against the body. Dante leads us to believe that intellectual or appetitive sins like pride, wrath, avarice, envy, and other moral failures caused the enmity that ruptures community and condemns sinners to their specific bodily punishments in Hell or penance in Purgatory. This aesthetic version of the torment of wrongdoers in the other world also emphasizes what we all know: Dante lived in a dangerous time and had no doubt witnessed many disturbing scenes in his own world not unlike those of his infernal other world. His brilliant synthesis of myth, history, legend, literature, and contemporary life, whether stemming from ancient or modern times, belies any effort to confine his work to the field of literary studies alone. Indeed, if we contextualize the Commedia in its times, we can also consider it an anthology of contemporary crimes, with Dante making his imagined divine system of just condemnation or vendetta modeled on current ideas of human justice.
However, this study does not focus on Dante’s rendition of violent punishment in the poem. Rather, it examines how the Commedia represents interpersonal, collective, and cosmic violence or coercion in the three spheres of the poet’s historic world: the household, civic and political domains, and the divine or cosmic realm. Including social coercion such as forced marriages as well as unnatural death, whether interpersonal (uxoricide or vendetta) or in civic or inter-civic conflict, or as redemptive deicide, these three areas present a panoramic view of the kinds of violence that were constitutive of fourteenth-century Italian life. The interpersonal and collective violence the poem features and condemns were often socially and politically sanctioned, or even structured into social behavior—forced marriages (Inf. 5 and Par. 3), personal vendetta (Inf. 29), or even hunger towers (Inf. 33), for example--despite the fact that they invariably violated moral and legal codes. Violence could be experienced everywhere, in visual art, where the suffering corpus of Christ or the pained bodies of martyrs took on greater importance from the thirteenth century onwards, or in poetic form, in the legacy of Roman poetry, encyclopedias, chronicles, and in medieval epic and chivalric literature, all abundant with battle-scene mayhem, rape, and blood-feud. Violence in the home, in city life, in intercity warfare, or in pan-European conflict in real time matched these artistic and literary bellicose scenes.
Dante’s treatment of violence in the Commedia has not been explored systematically, a point made in a recent article by Zygmunt Barański, where, remarking on how the question of violence is strewn across Dante’s works, notes what little attention Dantisti have given to the question in the Commedia. Barański also makes the important point that Dante’s literary sources were riddled with violence, whether the ancient and medieval epics, historical writing, or the visual representations all around him, yet scholars have ignored the topic in Dante’s work. Manuele Gragnolati’s discussion of the experiences of the disembodied, yet pained souls of Purgatory, does address a productive type of violence in the Commedia. Scholars have examined Dante’s treatment of war as well as peace including Jeffrey Schnapp’s Transfiguration of History at the Center of Dante’s Paradise and a recent collection of essays edited by John Barnes and Daragh O’Connell. Also, Dante’s use of martial references and metaphors in the Commedia has received attention. Richard Lansing’s 1981 essay, “Dante’s Concept of Violence and the Chain of Being,” defining violence in the poem as “yielding to unnatural and therefore inherently bad passions,” set out some important groundwork, perhaps most importantly that Dante does not define violence. Rather, “Dante gives the reader more than one concept or definition to work with; at times such plurality precludes total harmony of thought within the system.”