The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards)

Christine de Pizan is a rare example of a literary woman from the Medieval period. She was raised in the French Court after her Italian father took a job there as an astrologer and physician. There she achieved a high level of education that wouldn’t have been possible in the male-dominated arenas of the Italian City-States. Married at fifteen to a court official and widowed from her happy marriage, she attempted to support herself and her children through her writing.

The Book of the City of Ladies addresses the slander that women are by nature full of vice and evil. Ancient and contemporary writers often accused women of being lewd and unable to control their sexual desires, as being weak and cowardly, as being unfit for government or law, as unintelligent, who brought nothing but unhappiness to their husbands, and were the cause of humanity’s downfall through Eve.

“[J]udging from the treatises of all philosophers and poets and from all the orators . . .  it seems that they all speak from one and the same mouth. They all concur in one conclusion: that the behavior of women is inclined to and full of every vice (4).”

All of this anti-female discourse found in the great works fills Christine with low self-esteem, self-hated, and loathing of her own sex.

“I finally decided that God formed a vile creature when He made woman, and I wondered how such a worthy artisan could have deigned to make such an abominable work which, from what they say, is the vessel as well as the refuge and abode of every evil and vice. . . . I detested myself and the entire feminine sex, as though we were monstrosities in nature (5).”

Christine is confronted by the female allegorical figures Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. Like much medieval allegorical work, Christine is influenced by Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy in which Lady Philosophy arrives to comfort Boethius at the dawn of his execution and correct his mistaken views about divine justice. Like Lady Philosophy, Reason, Rectitude, and Justice have come to comfort Christine in her distress, challenge the lies of these male writers, and help her build a City of Ladies for future generations whose walls will defend the virtue of women.

“What more do you want me to tell you, my dear daughter? It seems to me that I have brought sufficient proof of my intention, which was to show you, through reasoning and example, that God has never held, nor now holds, the feminine sex—nor that of men—in reproach (97).”

Reason points out that those who blame Eve for humanity’s Fall ignore the more important contribution of the Virgin Mary who provided humanity’s salvation. Reason acknowledges that there may be some merit in attacking “lewd” women, but writers that do so often go beyond these reasonable boundaries and assume all women are dissolute. Reason tells Christine that these male writers attack women due to their own vices, jealousy, and enjoyment of slander.

In response to the claim that women should have no place in law, government, or dispensing justice, Reason offers many examples of women leaders who were known for their just rule such as Nicaula the Empress of Ethiopia and Fredegund the Queen of France. To counter the point that women are physically weaker, cowardly, and have less strength, Reason notes how nature often makes up for defects in one area by giving an advantage in another. Aristotle was misshapen physically, but had a first-rate mind. Alexander the Great was ugly and sickly, but his courageous heart and virtuous qualities made him a first-rate warrior and leader. Likewise, some strong men, far from being virtuous, have committed such heinous acts during war that they’ve damned their souls and would’ve been better off being born with weak feminine bodies. Reason goes on to list the many women who have demonstrated courage and strength in history. She mentions Semiramis of Nineveh who conquered Babylon, Assyria, Ethiopia, and India. Another exemplar is Queen Thamiramis of the Amazons who defeated the Persian King Cyrus, and then chopped off his head, and threw it into a bucket of blood as ridicule for his never-ending bloodlust. While the Amazon warriors Menalippe and Hippolyta unhorsed Hercules and Theseus in battle, and Penthesilea the Amazon took on whole armies of Greeks to avenge Hector’s death. She could only be stopped when Pyrrhus, Achilles’ son, ambushed her with all his forces.

Reason next addresses whether women can be as clever and intelligent as men. The perception that women know less than men arises from lack of equal access to education and that women spend their days running a household rather than participating in a variety of human activities that would require of them and provide them with a broader education. Examples of educated women include Conficia who went to school with her brother and became a famous poet mentioned by both Saint Gregory and Boccaccio. While Proba mastered all seven liberal arts and knew all of Virgil’s works by heart. The Greek Sappho who also gets a mention was not only well-educated, but a celebrated poet. Reason elaborates on this claim further by pointing out that many women have invented new fields and technology. Nicostrata also called Carmentis was the first to institute laws in the Italian lands that would later become Rome. Minerva invented techniques for making armor. Indeed, she was so wise and so skilled that according to Reason the pagans mistook her for a goddess. Ceres invented the science of agriculture and farming, while Isis invented the art of gardening and planting.  The last part of Reason’s discussion involves prudence or the discipline to complete what needs to be done. Here Reason buttresses her argument by offering a gloss on the biblical proverbs. Some of her prudent women include Gaia Cirilla, Queen Dido, Opis, and Lavinia who marries Aeneas in the Aeneid.


Next it is Rectitude’s turn who calls out the foolishness of parents that desire sons over daughters. She argues that sons are more likely to resent their parent’s poverty or desire their parent’s death if their parents happen to be rich in order to inherit property quicker, while daughters tend to be more loyal. Rectitude then gives example of daughters loyal to parents through tough times. Next, Rectitude challenges the stereotype that marriage is filled with unhappiness for men because of controlling, disloyal wives. Indeed, often the opposite is true.

“How many women are there actually, dear friend—and you yourself know—who because of their husbands’ harshness spend their weary lives in the bond of marriage in greater suffering than if they were slaves among the Saracens? My God! How many harsh beatings—without cause and without reason—how many injuries, how many cruelties, insults, humiliations, and outrages have so many upright women suffered, none of whom cried out for help? And consider all the women who die of hunger and grief with a home full of children, while their husbands carouse dissolutely or go on binges in every tavern all over town, and still the poor women are beaten by their husbands when they return, and that is their supper! (119).”

This denunciation against abusive husbands challenges the slander that women make men unhappy in marriage. In reality, it is men who often make women unhappy in marriage.  Still, women often remain loyal to their husbands, despite this mistreatment.

To challenge the claim that women are unfaithful, Rectitude turns to well-known mythological examples such as Dido’s loyalty to Aeneas, Medea’s loyalty to Jason, Thisbe to Pyramus, Hero to Leander, and the Griselda tale, which is such a prototypical tale of constancy in the Middle Ages, that it is retold in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s the Decameron as well. Rectitude tells of Portia who is so loyal to her husband, Brutus, that after he is defeated in battle during the Civil War that follows Julius Caesar’s assassination, she swallows burning coals to commit suicide in solidarity with her deceased spouse.  Rectitude also lists women who helped save their people from destruction or danger such as the biblical figures Mary, Judith, and Queen Esther. Rectitude shows that men are often happier or would be happier if they listened to their wives’ sound advice to keep them out of mischief. One such example is Veturia the wife of Cornelius who convinces her husband not to destroy Rome.

The final allegorical figure is Justice who comes to complete the city. The Virgin Mary is brought to reign as Queen of the City of Ladies. Justice speaks of female saints who suffer and survive many tortures at the hands of tyrannical Roman Emperors and zealous pagans. Christine saves these figures for last because they have the most unimpeachable virtue. She provides countless examples of saintly women who were chosen by God Himself to suffer in His name and convert the pagans. Any male writer who wishes to claim all women are nothing but vice and evil will struggle to rebut the many examples of female saints who represent the most virtuous of people in the Christian worldview and the exact opposite of their claims. Not only is Christine making a statement of who is most deserving to occupy the choicest places of her allegorical city, but seen in terms of a rhetorical strategy she is saving her best arguments for last.
Christine should be viewed as a proto-Feminist who focuses on women’s issues and questions the stereotypes men have of women, yet she is also a product of her times. It is inaccurate to envision her as a feminist in the modern sense fighting for complete liberation from patriarchal society or who supports free love. As Reason says earlier women who live dissolute lives should be criticized; in so far as this reflects Christine’s views, she is not someone who’s going to argue that women should be able to sleep with as many partners as they want. Her ideal women are chaste virgins who devote their lives to God, as shown by her female saints occupying the highest mansions of the City of Ladies, and those who do choose to get married she argues at various points should be subject to their husbands as St. Paul suggests. However, she does call out bad husbands explicitly and doesn’t shy away from challenging male authority when it is wrong or immoral by those same Christian standards. Her devotion to Christianity doesn’t come second to her advocating for women’s rights; the work is a synthesis of the two where the slander of men is wrong in part because women are often good Christians demonstrating virtuous behavior and productive members of society.

With her Christian beliefs in mind, Christine adopts a euhemerist model to handle her pagan mythological references. This view of mythology argues that the figures of myth are real historical figures, usually great men and women, whose actual history has become exaggerated, obscured, and transformed over time into myth. When she mentions Uranus and Vesta, they are no longer the progenitor sky and earth deities, but Uranus is reduced to “an extremely powerful man in Greece (95).” Saturn is not the King of the Titans anymore, but rather he is the King of Crete. Christine applies these assumptions with many other classical gods and goddess, claiming they were humans whose wisdom or excessive virtue led the pagans to incorrectly believe they were gods. In this vein, Rectitude talks about the ten sibyls. It was a medieval belief that one of the sibyls prophesied Jesus and spoke out against paganism. This bring us to an important point in Christine’s literary strategy. She wants to be able to use ancient sources steeped in paganism, but obviously can’t use them wholesale due to Christian social mores. So in the case of the sibyls she turns them into proto-Christians and in the case of the pagan deities she uses a euhemeristic understanding of mythology to make these exemplars more palatable to a Christian audience and reconcilable to her monotheistic beliefs.

This leaves us with the City itself, which Reason, Rectitude, and Justice help build with their arguments. The walls and structures of the city are built out of all the virtuous qualities the women of history, literature, the Bible, and mythology have shown. By erecting the city on these arguments, they are designed to protect women from future slander.


Piers Plowman by William Langland (edited by Elizabeth Robertson and Stephen H. A. Shepherd).

Piers Plowman is a Christian allegorical poem written in Middle English alliterative verse. It is one of the most important English vernacular works to be written along with Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Three different variants of the work exist known as the A-Text, the B-Text, and the C-text. The biggest differences between the versions:

  • the B-text adds additional visions (chapters) to the ones found in the A-Text
  • the allegorical character giving speeches in certain sections change between the different versions (such as Conscience preaching in the A-Text to the Seven Deadly Sins, while Reason is the preacher during this same part in the B-text)
  • sometimes certain allegorical figures are not included at all (Wrath is absent from the A-Text during the above-mentioned scene, but is present in the B-text)
  • the C-Text adds an autobiographical section tacked onto one of the visions.

I read the Norton Critical Edition of the B-text translated into modern English by E. Talbot Donaldson. The work follows a Christian dreamer named Will, identified sometimes with William Langland himself, who searches for answers to his existential questions concerning theological, spiritual, and ethical issues. He has different dreams or visions that occur across twenty chapters called “Passus,” which in Latin means “Step,” implying that the work involves a journey as he discovers the answers to these questions. It is a very different sort of journey than the one found in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, which is another Christian allegory from a later literary time period. Bunyan’s work externalizes the allegorical elements as part of an adventurous quest plot that isn’t much different from the basic plot structure one might find in a modern epic fantasy, while Piers Plowman consists mostly of dialogues in which Will, the dreamer, puts troublesome spiritual questions to various allegorical figures who offer loquacious answers. The “journey” in this work is an internal one with an inconclusive finale. It reads a lot like Plato’s dialogues and nothing like an adventure story. Another somewhat unique characteristic of the work is its positive portrayal of the lower classes often missing from other medieval works. The poem melds religious allegory about salvation and ethical living with social satire of medieval society.

The poem opens with Will falling asleep beneath a tree and having his first vision in which he views a tower on a hill where Truth resides (God), a terrible dungeon below (hell), and “a faire felde ful of folke (2)” between them consisting of all sorts of people in society from the highest to the lowest. This middle ground represents the world and how people navigate its mazes to end up either in the Tower (heaven) or in the dungeon (hell). A woman arrives who introduces herself as the Church and desires that Will should enter the Tower where Truth resides. She goes on to elaborate on the nature of Truth and God, focusing on divine love and the importance of giving charity to the poor. Will desires to learn not only Truth, but also how he can determine what is false. Lady Church tells him to look to his left side where he sees her many enemies: False, Favel, and the beautifully dressed Lady Meed. Favel represents lying or deceit. Lady Meed symbolizes reward and profit. False and Favel with the help of Simony and Civil try to bribe various officials in order to marry Meed to Falseness. Eventually the King learns about all this bribery happening in his realm through the assistance of his adviser, Conscience (who not only represents moral conscience in the modern sense, but also consciousness in general) and orders the arrest of all these villains.

In custody, King wants Meed to marry Conscience, but he refuses to marry her due to her past sins. Meanwhile in custody, she is busy corrupting the king’s officials left and right with all her bribery. Conscience says he’ll only consider the marriage if Reason agrees. Reason arrives and convinces the king to reject the idea of such a marriage. This turns the King against Meed. Reason offers the advice that the best and most just kingdoms are those ruled by Reason. By having the king turn against Meed on the advice of Reason and hearing a sermon on how a just kingdom is ruled by reason, this scene serves as a social commentary on the rightful role of kings. Kings who rule by Reason and put the interests of the realm first tend to be good rulers, while those who put their own greed and self-interests first, as represented by Meed, end up corrupting the whole realm through their bad rule. These bad kings have married their conscience, their primary guide to ethical concerns, to Meed (their desire for reward and profit) and have failed to consult their reason.

Reason follows this success with the king by going out and giving a sermon to the entire populace. The Allegorical Seven Sins appear and each repent before Reason their various offenses, often involving colorful stories related to their specific natures. It is in this vision that we first meet Piers Plowman who offers his own sermon about the way to Truth and how a humble workman like himself tries to live by the principles of simplicity, faith in God, and helping others. Piers convinces the pilgrims to help him plow the fields and promises them as much food as they need as a reward for their assistance. At first many agree, but over time many of the people grow lazy and stop helping. Piers complains about Waster, an allegorical figure that represents those who waste and do nothing productive for their fellow man. Piers asks Hunger to punish Waster with hunger. He then asks Hunger what should be done about beggars. Hunger tells Piers that it is the way of the righteous to help beggars and the poor who genuinely cannot work or help themselves. The text suggests through this juxtaposition between Wasters and the needy that the difference between them lies in that Wasters can work, but choose laziness, and therefore steal vital resources from true beggars who genuinely need the charity of others because they’re incapable of working.
After this vision, Will returns to the world in desperate search of Do Well as the key to his salvation. Unable to find him in the world, Will has another dream where he encounters a larger version of himself named Thought. Thought explains to him that Do Well, Do Better, and Do Best are three virtues found in anyone who is meek, mild, truthful, and willing to do his or her fair share of work and keep only what he or she has earned. In other words, he is the opposite of the proud, greedy, and intemperate person.

“Do-Wel, my [dere], is to don as lawe techeth,
To love [and to lowe thee and no lyf to greve;
Ac to love and to lene], leve me, that is Do-Bet;
To yiven and to yemen bothe Yonge and olde,
To helen and to helpen, is Do-Best of alle (138).”

To Do Well is to follow God’s laws, to act humbly, behave towards others with love, and harm no other person. In an excerpt taken from the Dictionary of the Middle Ages that is included in the Norton Critical Edition, Donaldson describes the poem’s presentation of Do-Well as a secular person who lives his life according to Christian precepts, Do-Better as the contemplative man who spends his time helping others and engaging in charity, and Do-Best is like a Bishop or Priest who challenges the wicked and ministers to the good (499). Donaldson goes on to suggest that Piers Plowman serves as one of the central figures of the poem precisely because he “transition[s] from Do-Well to Do-Better (499)” and eventually to Do-Best in the final sections of the poem.

Here they turn to Wit to find out where Do Well, Do Better, and Do Best live. Wit tells them that Do Better is Do Well’s daughter and serves as a lady-in-waiting to Anima (soul). They all let Do Best guide them as their Bishop. In this castle is a constable named Inwit (understanding and rational capacity) whose sons Sir See-Well, Sir Say-Well, Sir Hear-Well, Sir Work-Well-With-Your-Hands, and Sir Godfrey Go-Well protect the safety of Anima. Kind has made a castle where Do Well and Anima reside. Kind is one of the allegorical identities of God in the poem. Wit describes what sort of being Kind is and how He tries to take care of all souls and give them what they need. This discourse ends on a discussion of the correct nature of marriage, which is not one based in the desire to gain money or land or one that involves partners of drastically different ages, but equal partners who marry out of love.
After this discourse, Wit’s wife, Dame Study, arrives and castigates him for wasting his wisdom on fools and mockers who will not be able to appreciate them. She attacks the wealthy as mockers of religion who often talk blasphemous and superficially about God. She views Will’s desire to know the difference between Do Well and Do Better as the equivalent of questioning God and His purposes, apprehensive of his motives. At the direction of Wit, the dreamer humbles himself before Dame Study. She softens before his humility and decides to help him after all by acquainting him with her cousin, Clergy, and his wife, Scripture.


Will comes to fear that he will never save his soul without more theological knowledge. Scripture teaches him that great learning and wisdom doesn’t save men. Many well-educated clerks and officials of the church will end up in hell for their abuses of their office, while many lowly uneducated men will be saved. Pure faith is superior to a deep knowledge of theology. Often the lowest and most ignorant are the first in heaven as the Bible teaches. True faith doesn’t require learning and quoting scripture from heart, but love of God, fellow Christians, and even one’s enemies.

“For every Cristene creature shulde be kynde til other,
And sithen hethen to helpe in hope of amendement.
God hoteth bothe heigh and lowe that no man hurte other (158).”


At this point, Will enters a dream within a dream in which the Flesh and all its seeming pleasures tries to seduce him. As he listens to their seductive speeches, Old Age arrives and warns him that fortune and pleasure who speak such lovely words now will abandon him in time. Recklessness then appears to try and convince dreamer to ignore the warnings of Old Age.

Will has a vision of nature and animals where he comes to realize all animals are guided by Reason, except humanity. He tries to rebuke Reason for not guiding them, but Reason criticizes Will for interfering in the order of things of which he cannot judge properly (repeating Adam’s sin of wanting the wisdom of God), so Reason refuses to instruct him further.

In the next vision, Will witnesses a dinner being partaken by Conscience, Clergy, and Patience. He sits at a side table with Patience eating mediocre food, while at the head of the main table is a hypocritical friar eating all kinds of delicacies. They put some questions to the friar who offers memorized and academic answers to their theological questions, while the poem hints at the friar’s hypocrisy by knowing the answers, but not living by them. During the dinner, Conscience decides to join Patience on a pilgrimage into the world to develop his spiritual self through direct experience as opposed to the theoretical book learning that Clergy offers.

On this journey, Conscience and Patience meet Hawkins the Active Man. This man is all about appearance, wanting to appear the smartest, greatest, holiest, and best of men. He is all talk, pretends to be holy, but is really a sinner and prideful. His sins appear as dirt and specks on his outer coat. Such a man eventually ends up in a state of despair, unable to live by the church’s creed and falling so far into sin that a deep sense of hopelessness pervades him from the fear that his sins have grown too great for salvation. In response to being criticized for his dirty clothes, Hawkin’s claims that he cannot ever seem to get his clothes spotless; every time he cleans it via confession and contrition it gets dirty soon after.  At one point, he even blames his wife for the dirty state of his clothes (echoing Adam blaming Eve for convincing him to eat the forbidden fruit). In response to Hawkins, Patience preaches moderation (the opposite of the “active life.”). The poem reiterates that the world is corrupt and participating in it only leads to sin. In order to achieve heaven, Christians must hate this world. Patience goes on to explain how the poor have an advantage with the Seven Deadly sins compared to the rich. It cannot affect the poor as strongly because their desires and means to engage in these sins are restricted.

Will has a new dream in which he converses with Anima (the soul) who describes her many forms. Sometimes Anima takes the form of Mens (capacity for knowing), Memoria (remembrance), Reason, Sensus (empathy/feeling for others), Conscience, Amor (when the soul loves God and others), Spiritus (when freed from the flesh). Will’s desire to know everything is a sin and similar to the pride of Lucifer – only God knows everything. This is emphasized by the way many of the allegorical figures rebuke him throughout the various parts of the poem for his questions and how he’s often not content with the answers he does receive from them.

Will has a vision of Piers Plowman who has erected three polls to protect this tree from “the worlde [which] is a wyked wynde to hem the wolden treuthe” (274). Satan wishes to take all its fruits for himself. We are told that this tree was planted in a garden by God. The tree metaphor for the Truth and Charity draws on the Garden of Eden story from the Bible and highlights the theme found in other parts of the poem that knowledge is often bad, whereas it’s charity, simplicity, and faith that lead one to God.

Pier’s tree equals Truth and grows in a soil of goodness. The three polls symbolize: the Power of God, Wisdom of God, and Grace and the Holy Spirt respectively. In another metaphor, Piers Plowman, in the roll of a priestly figure and thus representing his ascension to the symbolic role of Do-Best tills the soil of Truth with his oxen: Luke, Mark, Matthew, and John. Following them are four horses to harrow: Austin, Ambrose, Gregory, and Jerome that use the harrows, Old Testament and New Testament, to help plant seeds in men’s souls. These seeds they wish to plant are the Spirit of Prudence, the Spirit of Temperance, the Spirit of Fortitude, and the Spirit of Justice.


In another vision, Will watches as Jesus arrives in Jerusalem to joust with Satan in order to overcome Death and win the fruits back from Piers Plowman’s tree. The poem retells the story of the Crucifixion. After Jesus’s death, Truth, Mercy, Peace, and Righteousness debate the meaning of the light that hangs over hell. Then the harrowing of Hell occurs when Jesus arrives to save the Old Testament figures from eternal damnation and their demonic tormentors.

The final dream is an apocalyptic and pessimistic vision of Conscience besieged by the Antichrist and his army of the Seven Deadly Sins. As the sins injure the men inside Conscience’s fortress, the wounded grow weary with the slow, harsh, and difficult cures that the parish priests offer, turning to a friar who promises to offer a quicker and easier salvation for a hefty fee. Conscience believes the friar is a liar betraying the Christians who want an easier path towards salvation. The text’s earlier criticisms of the greedy and parasitic monastic orders culminate in this final vision in which it is implied that Christian society and salvation itself is threatened by the presence of these corrupt Friars.

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory about the Christian Life, which depicts the trials and tribulations of a believer as they attempt to maintain their faith in the face of all the temptations of the world. More particularly, it is the story of Christian, an everyman figure, weighed down by the burden on his back (his sin), living in the City of Destruction, and afraid that a terrible fate awaits him if he stays. After hearing a message from the Evangelist (the Gospel), he abandons his family who thinks he has lost his wits. He desires to reach the Wicket Gate where he can escape the fate of the city of destruction and his pilgrimage to the Celestial City can begin. This part symbolizes the line from Matthew 10:36, “a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” The idea here is that one must abandon one’s family for one’s faith if it comes down to that. The reaction of his fellow villagers also implies that many in the world will look upon the life-style of a Christian with disdain and treat them as if they’ve lost their mind.

In order to reach the Wicket Gate and the path towards salvation, Christian must sludge through the Slough of Despond (a muck created from the sins of humanity). One of his fellow villagers, Mr. Pliable temporarily follows him, but turns back after experiencing the Slough of Despond, fearing he will drown in the muck (i.e. he will drown in sin). Before Christian reaches the gate, he almost loses his way when he seeks after Mr. Worldly Wisdom, thinking maybe Worldly Wisdom has the answers to relieve his ills, but the evangelist finds Christian and remonstrates him for this action. The message here is that worldly wisdom is a deviation from the true path of salvation and doesn’t cure anything.

Finally he gets to the Wicket Gate and receives entrance as a pilgrim, but this is only the beginning of his quest. Inside, he must climb the Hill of Difficulty, fight a mortal combat with Apollyon (presented as the monstrous king of the material world who dislikes that he has lost his servant, Christian), traverse the Valley of the Shadow of Death where hobgoblins roam, travel off the approved path where he is captured by the giant Despair and beaten in Doubting Castle, watch his companion, Faithful, get sacrificed at Vanity Fair (where all the vanities of the world are for sale: kingdoms, jewels, women, etc.), ends up almost snared in the nets of a Flatterer, and then finally crosses the river of death to reach the Holy City.

A second part follows in which Christiana, Christian’s wife, and her children decided to follow in his footsteps and become pilgrims. They revisit many of the same places, but this time they are accompanied by Great Heart, who protects them from most of the dangers. There is a lot less drama and tension in this recapitulation. Likewise, many companions join Christiana, such as Feeble Mind and Mr. Ready-to-halt who walks about on crutches. This second part emphasizes that Christ’s salvation is for women, children, and the weak just as much as it is for healthy strong men.

The work does a fine job as an allegory for Christianity. It allegorizes the many difficulties that stand in the way of maintaining belief; the world itself, our vanities, want to snare us and take us off the path of faith, according to the text. The key idea in the work is that the true path to salvation is recognizing and admitting our sinful nature and asking for the grace of Christ for forgiveness, which is open to anyone who sincerely accepts it. The text holds no punches in that Bunyan is challenging other versions of Christianity that don’t believe in this way, often depicting them as ignorant and misguided. Many of the people they meet on the pilgrimage road profess Christianity, but often they are depicted as hypocrites who don’t really believe (it’s all external appearance) or believe in incorrect doctrine. Indeed, he even names an allegorical figure, Ignorance, who holds a discourse with Christian and Hopeful about his beliefs. In this discussion, it is revealed that Ignorance believes in Christ and has done his best to be a good person and serve Jesus, but doesn’t believe in humanity’s sinful nature and thus isn’t asking for forgiveness for his sins. Ignorance is a type of Christian as he claims to serve and believe in Christ, but the wrong kind apparently. In the end, when Ignorance walks up to the gates of Celestial City, the King refuses to recognize him and orders that he be bound and sent to the hell.

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

(Since my blogging pal, Cleo at Classical Carousel, is reading Dante, I thought it might be a good time to transfer over my post from the old blog on the Divine Comedy.)

Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which Dante himself, travels through hell, purgatory, and heaven is possibly one of the most important works of literature ever created and one of the richest to read. It is an allegory that consists of three parts: The Inferno, The Purgatorio, and The Paradiso, each of which can be read separately, but adds up to a single spiritual journey in which Dante discusses the politics of his day, the theological concerns of his time, and his own spiritual rebirth. It is a work that requires multiple readings, as all of its levels and subtextual layers can never be penetrated in a single read, or a second read, or a third read for that matter. The importance of The Divine Comedy is inestimable.

As literature it is an allegory rich in symbolism. Virgil, the Roman poet known for his epic The Aeneid and representing Human Reason, leads Dante in his journey through hell and purgatory, only to be replaced by Beatrice, the woman whose beauty consumed Dante with a passion and appeared in his earlier love poetry, now representing Divine Revelation. The symbolism here suggests that Human Reason can only take us so far in our journey; eventually it must be replaced by faith. Along the way through the different levels, Virgil attempts his best to answer any questions Dante has about the tortured souls of hell and the contrite souls of purgatory, fulfilling his role as Human Reason. When Beatrice appears, unlike Virgil who has to be asked the question, she is able to foresee all of Dante’s questions before he even asks them and answers his philosophical questions about the nature of heaven and the universe, fulfilling her symbolic role as Divine Revelation. With each sphere of heaven they ascend, Beatrice grows more and more beautiful, more and more radiant, playing on Dante’s earlier obsession with her beauty in his poetry to suggest that her physical beauty that he once valued so much was nothing in comparison to the beauty of her soul, which continually grows more radiant the deeper into heaven they go. The symbolism is always geared to show the spiritual world is superior to the material one.

Each torture in hell is symbolic for the crime committed. For example, the lustful are trapped in a never-ending whirlwind that buffets them about back and forth, symbolizing the lack of control of their desires and emotions that swing back and forth. They lacked moderation in life and allowed their physical desires to control them, therefore they valued the physical world over the spiritual one, and they are controlled by the physical forces (the whirlwind). Two characters we meet in this circle of hell is Paolo and Francesca. Francesca was married to Paolo’s brother and explains the two had an affair with each other after reading a work of medieval literature known as The Rhyme of Lancelot, which tells of an affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. Her husband discovers them in bed and then murders them in a fit of rage. It was meant to be a work warning about the consequences of affairs; Lancelot and Guinevere dalliance leads to political turmoil and the eventual downfall of Camelot. Francesca, however, uses this work as a manual for stimulation rather than as literature with moral value. She completely misses the moral point of the story, perverting it for a different use. Even in the real world, she failed to improve her soul and instead focused on her physical desires. She blames the story for causing her to betray her husband and commit adultery, but never takes responsibility for her own actions. This refusal to take responsibility for their own actions continues throughout the different circles of hell. Dante suggests all the souls in hell are there because they refuse to repent, their values are skewed; none of them will even admit or believes that they did anything wrong. These souls want nothing to do with God and his offer of grace.

It is very easy to forget that Dante is not just there to observe. The poem begins with him lost in the woods (symbolizing his own spiritual confusion). He approaches a hill where a bright light is shining (symbolizing God), but his way is blocked by three monstrous animals, a leopard (symbolizing Malice and Fraud), a lion (symbolizing violence and ambition), and a she-wolf (symbolizing incontinence). The three animals blocking his way cause him deep despair, but then Virgil shows up to guide him on this journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven after being sent by Beatrice. All of this is a personal and spiritual journey for Dante. It is not just a matter of passively watching others in hell, purgatory, and heaven for others edification, but Dante must learn a lesson here as well.

In response to Francesca’s story in the circle for the lustful, Dante ends up fainting. He also seems sympathetic towards the two lovers in comparison to his reactions to the other occupants of hell. The reason he is so sympathetic is because the love poetry of his earlier career is implicated in these sins. He can relate to them and their feelings of lust. Dante is not innocent; he is taking this journey as an extreme corrective measure to put him back on the right path. Later in the poem when Beatrice arrives, she castigates him for wasting his life and intellect on unholy activities and useless philosophies. The reason he asks so many questions in hell, purgatory, and heaven is because he is supposed to be learning from these experiences so he can correct his own life.

The work is intensely political, while also transcending mere political affiliations. The work revels in the political landscape of the late Middle Ages, especially the political landscape of Italy, making footnotes essential to any good translation. In the various realms, we find famous literary characters like Achilles and Dido, we have famous historical figures like the Emperor Justinian in heaven, and we have many contemporaries of Dante’s parents (Italians who lived the generation before Dante). One problem constantly explored is the way the church is intertwined in state affairs; throughout Dante’s journey, we see the negative consequences of church officials interfering with politics. Many corrupt church officials are in hell. Multiple characters go on long rants that money and political power has led to the corruption of the Catholic Church. One of Dante’s main targets was the current Pope, Pope Boniface VIII whose meddling is responsible for the inter-city civil wars ravaging Italy. At the heart of these wars is the conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, two political parties vying for control of the various city-states of Italy, as well as warring between each of the city-states. Dante is exiled from Florence by the White Guelphs for belonging to the wrong political party. It would have been easy for Dante to write a tendentious poem attacking only his political enemies, but what we find as we travel along the three realms is that both Guelphs and Ghibellines end up in hell, purgatory, and heaven based on their merit (not their party affiliation). This makes for a work that has a number of layers (political, religious, literary) and can be appreciated in a number of different ways (historically or aesthetically).

I found The Inferno to be the strongest and most interesting of three parts. It relies the most on visual spectacle; in a sense, it is the most visually dramatic and entertaining. The Purgatorio is also very visual, relying on episodes in the Bible and history via the art forms of the time to serve as corrective measures for repentance and purification. The Paradiso is the hardest of the three to approach and I struggled to stay interested. Unlike the earlier two parts, The Paradiso cantos generally consist of a description of its denizens appearing as a radiant light, then having an erudite discussion with Dante about some aspect of faith, in particular a resident often attempts to answer some stickier points of the philosophy of religion, such as the relationship between free will and fate (or omnipotence). Often then the Paradiso offers great insight into the philosophical religious questions of Scholasticism, the real meaty intellectual questions of his day, but can feel overly complicated and abstruse, requiring a deep knowledge of theology, medieval philosophy, and Scholasticism to fully appreciate and understand it. One problem is some of these questions in a less religious age like our own seem tedious and unimportant. Even people who have some religious belief will probably find these philosophical debates on the fine points of various faith issues boring and irritating. On the other hand, the shifts from the physicality of hell and purgatory fits the allegorical mode perfectly. Hell is the most physical because the occupants have lost sight of the spiritual and focused their energies on the material world, while heaven is the least physical in its imagery and its narrative focus is dedicated to intellectual discussions of faith because there the physical world no longer matters and its priorities is the spiritual, the true self, which is represented symbolically in these discussions.