Tag Archives: Dante Alighieri

Getting medieval on the doctrine of hell


I’ve posted several times on the new resource from the publishers Christian History, a compact little survey and resource guide on the history of Christian thought about hell. The project was ably managed by Jennifer Trafton and written by Jennifer, myself, and that redoubtable pair Edwin and Jennifer Woodruff Tait. Jennifer Trafton wrote a splendid annotated bibliography containing brief summaries of over 50 books contributing to the modern debates on hell. For the main, “timeline” section of the publication, the four of us divvied things up chronologically.

Hortus Deliciarum - Hell (Hölle) Herrad von Landsberg (about 1180)

My section was the medieval one, the substance of this post (previously posted in draft form, here). If you would like to read the whole guide in all its fully designed glory, simply go here and you can flip through it, starting with the harrowing Gustav Dore illustration for Milton’s Paradise Lost that appears on the cover (folks with old eyes, like mine, can click to zoom in):

The medieval period saw a shift in em­phasis from the early church’s focus on the biblical “Last Things”—the Second Coming of Christ, general resurrection, and final judgment—to a new concentra­tion on the afterlives of individuals. Until the 400s and even beyond, Jesus’ return was still expected imminently; thus those who died in the intervening generations could be thought of as simply sleeping or awaiting the resurrection. There was not much written during this early period about the immediate fate of those who died before Jesus returned.

As the Second Coming came to seem more remote, however, Chris­tians increasingly focused on the doc­trine of the immediate judgment of each soul at death. The Book of Rev­elation in particular began to guide Christian imagination on people’s fate after death. This emphasis on the af­terlife resulted in a lavishly visual and grotesque new genre of literature: the vision of the otherworldly journey, of which Dante’s Divine Comedy repre­sented the pinnacle. Continue reading

Medieval images and doctrines of hell


Dante's heavens and hells symbolised the astra...

Coppo di Marcovaldo, Hell (ca 1225 - 1274, Mosaic, Baptistry, Florence)

Folks, here’s a sneak preview of some work I did for the forthcoming Christian History magazine Handbook to Christian Thought on Hell. It’s not edited yet, but the guide, which will survey Christian thought on hell from the earliest church to the 21st century, will include something like what follows. If you are interested in getting the entire guide, which will be in a half-size  (roughly 5 x 8.5) magazine format complete with timeline and illustrations, go to www.christianhistorymagazine.org and get on the mailing list.

The Middle Ages

The medieval period (roughly 500 – 1500 AD) saw a shift in emphasis from the early church’s focus on the biblical “Last Things”—the Second Coming of Christ, general resurrection, and final judgment—to a new concentration on the afterlives of individuals. Until the 400s AD and even beyond (as in the thought of Gregory the Great (540 – 604)), the “Parousia” (second coming and all its associated events) was still expected imminently, and so those who died in the intervening generations could be thought of as simply sleeping or awaiting the resurrection. There simply wasn’t much written during this early period about the immediate fate of those who died before Jesus returned.

However as the Second Coming came to seem, potentially, more remote, the question of the reward of the saved and the punishment of the damned heated up, and the doctrine of the immediate judgment of each soul at death came into more prominence. The Book of Revelation in particular, which tremendously influenced medieval culture, began to be pressed into service to imagine the shape of people’s fate after death. As we will see, this emphasis on the afterlife and its support from the Book of Revelation resulted in a lavishly visual and grotesque new genre of imaginative literature: the vision of the otherworldly journey, of which Dante’s Divine Comedy was the pinnacle. Continue reading

Dorothy Sayers on “romantic theology” in Dante Alighieri and Charles Williams


High resolution scan of engraving by Gustave D...

"The Souls of Paolo and Francesco," by Gustav Dore, illustrating Canto V of Dante's Inferno

The following are some reflections on Dorothy L. Sayers’s essay “Dante and Charles Williams,” published in The Whimsical Christian: 18 Essays by Dorothy L. Sayers (New York: Collier Books, 1987):

Dorothy Sayers rarely wrote an uninteresting word–much less when talking about her chief late-life passion: the great Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri.

Like C. S. Lewis, Sayers saw in the quirky novelist, Dantist, and romantic mystic Charles Williams something of enduring value. Especially, she saw Williams as having grasped a crucial point about why Dante–and countless other historical figures–are still important to us today. [I posted here on how Sayers, Lewis, and Williams all drew different sorts of sustenance from that great poet.]

The point is this: Dante, despite the fact that he lived “long ago and far, far away,” was a human like us, with experiences in many respects like ours, and he is still of great value to us because he had acute insights into the truths behind those experiences, along with a poet’s ability to express those insights deeply and brilliantly. Continue reading

C S Lewis and “medieval morality”


The following are some thoughts on how C S Lewis will figure as a “guide” into the look and feel of the “moral fabric of the Middle Ages,” and how that fabric differs from our own. It’s basically me grinding away at the grist for this Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants book.

My argument in this chapter is not that Christianity—either in the medieval period or any other period—has taught some distinctive morality, or even that it taught that morality in a distinctive way (although it did, from the earliest years of the church, as Robert Louis Wilken persuasively argues in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought). Rather, my argument is that today, Protestants, especially evangelicals, have fallen so in love with Luther’s (Augustine’s) message of grace, and have so spiritualized their faith (I almost said Gnosticized, and sometimes I wonder) that questions of morality have receded from view. So we need to hear again from a time (the Middle Ages) when Christianity structured not only people’s worship, but also their moral lives. Continue reading

Dorothy L. Sayers: The passionate popularizer


It’s always fun to find a reviewer or biographer who “gets” one of your favorite figures. Here is Adrian Leak, commemorating Dorothy L. Sayers on the 50th anniversary of her death.

Unlike the portrait of Sayers we derive from her Oxford magazine article I just posted on, here Sayers (an accomplished scholar of medieval French) separated herself from academia to position herself as a woman of the people, “no academic but a common popular soapbox lecturer.” The truth was at both ends of this paradox.

I recommend you click through to the full article, both for the pleasure of reading it and for the wonderful photo (which I had not seen before) of Sayers standing on stage with with actors performing in St Thomas’s, Regent Street, Westminster, and other photos:

Adrian Leak, “From Lord Peter to the Lord Jesus,” Church Times, Dec. 14, 2007.

THE FIRST THING that struck you about Dorothy L. Sayers was her magnificent size. It was not something that worried her, however. “The elephant is crated,” she gasped as, after a struggle, she subsided into the back of a friend’s car. At Marshall & Snelgrove, in Oxford Street, it took nine months to construct a corset robust enough to contain her.

Not that any conventional constraints ever restricted her for long. During a successful run of one of her plays in the West End she could be seen — and heard — entertaining the cast to large, bibulous suppers at the Soho restaurant Le Moulin d’Or. Wholehearted enjoyment characterised her approach not only to food and wine: when she lectured on Dante to the Society of Italian Studies at Cambridge, some of the academics were shocked by the vigour and élan of her delivery. Continue reading

C S Lewis explains how to study the Middle Ages


What follows are excerpts from a letter from C S Lewis to a friend of his, in which he explains (in answer to his friend’s query) how he himself learned about the Middle Ages–and how his friend might wish to pursue that study. Because these are notes for my own use, I have at a couple of points simply inserted into the running text, in square brackets, footnotes I found useful:

The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. II

This is the letter to his nun friend, Sister Madeleva: Magdalen College, Oxford, June 7th 1934, which contains his suggested program of study of the Middle Ages. p. 140ff:

[n. 14, 140: “Sister M. Madeleva CSC (1887 – 1964), a member of the Congregation of Sisters of the Holy Cross, was a teacher of English at St Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana. While staying in Oxford during Trinity Term 1934, she attended Lewis’s lectures on medieval poetry, and had a particular interest in the lecture devoted to Boethius. Besides lending Sister Madeleva his notebooks giving details of the works mentioned in his lectures, L invited her to visit him in Magdalen. On her return to Notre Dame in 1934, Sister Madeleva was made President of St Mary’s College, a post she held until her retirement in 1961. Here numerous books include [a list follows including studies on Chaucer and the Pearl poem, indicating a continued interest in medieval studies]. . . .”]

“The [141] history of my lecture is this. After having worked for some years on my own subject (which is the medieval allegory), I found that I had accumulated a certain amount of general information which, tho far from being very recondite, was more than the ordinary student in the school could gather for himself. Continue reading

To be a Christian leader, one must transcend limited perspectives–so says Dante


Another clip from Patron Saints for Postmoderns. Dante’s story of his own salvation is also a story of the making of a Christian leader:

A Triune Salvation

Dante begins his poem with the confessional “midlife crisis”: “Once upon a time he had known the right way, la diritta via, la verace via; but he lost it, let it get overgrown and rank.” But as we get deeper into his epic poem, he mounts a sharp critique on his own irresponsible devotion to romantic love, his own intellectual pride and his own loyalty to party and to Florence. Dante the poet makes these character traits of Dante the pilgrim look less and less appropriate as he nears the Beatific Vision of God’s own person. In a stunning moment toward the end of Purgatorio Dante meets Beatrice again after a long separation. Continue reading