I Wish I Had Read This Article

What follows is an overview and timeline I wish I had when I first started reading the Divine Comedy.  Many commentaries on the Divine Comedy give background historical information on this great poem, but usually in small and disconnected pieces as specific characters or events come up.  Because the poem relates closely to its cultural, political, and spiritual background, it’s good to have the broad strokes.

Because the Divine Comedy is filled with notable people within the poet’s lifetime as well as historical characters, knowing who these people are will facilitate reading. When I first mention a character who also appears in the Divine Comedy, his or her name will be in  bold.   Since Between Fortune and Providence was written for an audience familiar with astrology, I have included important planetary cycles within my depiction of Dante’s era.

This is not an introduction to the poem itself, for there are plenty of those – including my own Between Fortune and Providence.  Instead, this essay will enable you to read the poem with greater understanding.


Finger-Painting the Medieval Era

Had you lived in medieval Bologna this building would have dominated your town.

Religion: trying to understand the medieval Church takes a leap of the modern reader’s imagination.  Christianity had a major role in helping make medieval Europe as civilized and refined as it was at its height.  At the same time, the Church was often far more empire than religion and at times was unbelievably worldly.  At other times, the church was vulnerable to being abducted by stronger secular rulers.

The papacy inaugurated some attempts to reform the Church.  There were also reform movements from the monastic side; other Church reform movements, like the orders of the Franciscans and Dominicans, began with charismatic leaders.  There were some failed attempts that have come down to us as “heresies.”

Politics: During Dante’s lifetime, the region we call Italy was comprised of many autonomous and economically diverse regions.  In the south was the vulnerable but cosmopolitan kingdom of Sicily and Naples. The central region was governed by the Pope.  In the wealthier and urbanized north, including Florence, there were many city-states frequently at war with each other and with the larger forces around them. During the medieval era, the “Holy Roman Empire” was but a loose confederation of warring princes and imperial control was only theoretical but occasionally attempted.

During the poet’s lifetime, the French monarchy became dominant in European affairs.  Nostalgic for a renewed Roman Empire that was Christian, Dante did not know that the future would favor not empires but nations, not the Holy Roman Empire but France, England, and Spain.

This map of medieval trade routes shows the central position of Italy from the time of the Crusades for the next four hundred years.

Economics: the monetary and banking systems of Dante’s world would be more familiar to us.  Unlike the more feudal Europe to its north and west, Northern Italy contained many commercial and banking institutions similar to ours.   Italy benefited from its proximity to major trade routes and, with the Crusades, more traffic that moved back and forth across the Mediterranean.  (Later these trade routes would help bankroll the Italian Renaissance.)  As someone who was inspired by Francis of Assisi but lacked the saint’s generous temperament, Dante loathed the commercialization of Florence and Northern Italy in general.

Now we begin our chronology and we’ll start with an almost-mythic confrontation of Church and Empire.

Henry and Gregory

1077: The Investiture Conflict. Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV had been

Emperor Henry bows down to Pope Gregory. It would be only temporary.

excommunicated.  In an attempt to be reconciled with the Church, Henry traveled over the Alps in the winter, put on the garb of a penitent, and waited barefoot in the snow for three days before Pope Gregory VII.  The place of this famous encounter between Emperor and Pope was the castle in Canossa whose owner was Mathelda.  Mathelda has the same name as the woman Dante places as forest deity of the Earthly Paradise and this has provoked divided commentary.

Although it looked very differently at the time, bowing to the Pope was a shrewd political move by Emperor Henry: as leader of the Church, the Pope had to “forgive” the Emperor. This gave Henry the time and opportunity he needed to augment his position in Germany. A few years later Henry came back to Italy with an army and Gregory was forced to flee and he soon died in exile from Rome.

Of interest to the astrologer would be this meeting in the Neptune-Pluto cycle: at this time Neptune (in mid-Gemini) was in an opening square to Pluto (in mid-Pisces).  More than any other planetary cycle, Neptune/Pluto is about the major turning points in a society and its culture.

This Neptune/Pluto cycle began in 905 at when European culture was beginning to settle down after the Viking invasions and there was renewed political and commercial activity, including the beginning of the feudalism system – but there was a long way to go toward stability.  The first monastery at Cluny began at this time; this would be the center of the first of many reform movements in this era.

 Before becoming Pope, Gregory was a senior advisor to Pope Leo IX who was attempting to reform the church by centralizing papal authority.  (Another of Pope Leo’s chief advisors, from the monastic side, was Peter Damian who we meet in Paradise’s sphere of Saturn, Paradiso 21.)  Leo and later Gregory aimed to (1) have popes elected by senior clergy, not appointed by an Emperor, (2) enforce priestly celibacy, (3) forbid the buying and selling of church offices, or “simony,” (see Inferno 19) and (4) turn over the power of appointing bishops (“investiture”) to the Church hierarchy, not to secular leaders, i.e. “lay investiture”.

When Pope Gregory sent an edict forbidding lay investiture, Henry appointed his own bishop in defiance.  Gregory responded by excommunicating the Emperor (excluding him from the church and its sacraments) and proclaiming him deposed as secular ruler.  If Henry didn’t repent within a year these two proclamations would be made permanent.  So he walked to Canossa.

The investiture conflict continued past the lifetimes of both men and was formally resolved in 1122. The issue, however, was part of the much larger question of ultimate authority for Europe.  Would the continent become a secular theocracy, whereby its temporal rulers also governed the church?  Or was it to be a papal theocracy, whereby the pope was the universal leader and bestowed the church’s greater authority upon its secular rulers?  The momentum went back and forth as neither side could prevail for long. By Dante’s time both Empire and Papacy had become seriously weakened, which resulted in political chaos and violence in Northern Italy.  The result was that Europe never became a secular nor papal theocracy.


Crusades and Contacts with the Islamic World

Cacciaguida sent on a Crusade, killed by one from the religion, ascending to Heaven as a God’s part of the deal.

1091: Probable birth of Cacciaguida. This is the year reckoned for the birth of Dante’s ancestor.  In the course of their long conversation in the middle cantos of the Paradiso, Cacciaguida relates his life, the life of the Florence of his era and its subsequent decline, and predicts the pilgrim’s exile.  Cacciaguida tells of a Florence that was smaller, more homogenous, less commercial, and where the women dressed more decently.  Although there is no independent record of this man Cacciaguida, there is no reason to doubt his existence.

1092: First Crusade. We return to the larger world.  In previous decades and far to the east of Italy, the Seljuk Turks had taken over many of the Muslim lands and had captured all of Asia Minor (our modern “Turkey”) from the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Emperor had appealed to Pope Gregory for help, but the Pope was too busy feuding with Henry IV.  Times changed though, and in November 1095 Gregory’s successor Urban II called upon all Christians to “take up the cross” and recapture the holy lands from the Muslims.  This also occurred as Uranus was approaching a closing square to Neptune, bringing about a change in religious and secular structure.

Two years later an expedition the “First Crusade” left for the east, passed through Constantinople and by 1099 had conquered and occupied significant land held by the Muslims.  The victorious crusaders established Latin-speaking medieval states in the original Holy Land.

History has not been kind to the First Crusaders.

The Crusades brought great pillage and unnecessary slaughter.  Future crusades were generally no more virtuous but were less militarily successful.  In spite of the cavernous gap between ideal and reality, the activity of crusading as taking up the cross for God remained powerful in the European imagination from the medieval times up to the modern era.   Dante was no exception to this; in the Divine Comedy the poet waxes nostalgic for the crusading ideal and, in his conversation with his ancestor, even casts himself as a crusader.

1138: Translations of Astrological Texts into Latin. During this time and in different parts of Europe, important astrological works from the Islamic areas were being translated.  In this year Plato of Trivoli translated Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos into Latin, making the ancient writer of natural astrology available to the Latin West.  Two years earlier Hugh of Santilla translated the Centriquium, falsely attributed to Ptolemy, which contained basic principles of applied astrology.  Previously Adelard of Bath translated Arabic astronomical tables, works of Abu Masar from the Arabic, and constructed an astrolabe. The Jewish poet and astrologer Abraham Ibn Ezra, born late in the eleventh century, lived in Italy in middle of the 1100’s and wrote many of astrological works that have been recently translated into English.

 1145: Second Crusade and Bernard of Clairvaux. In 1144 the Muslims recaptured the city of Edessa in present-day Iraq.  Pope Eugenius III called for another expedition to the Holy Land to take back Edessa and to continue the conquest of the Holy Land for Christendom.  The “Second Crusade” was an embarrassing failure.

One who enthusiastically promoted this new crusade was Bernard of Clairvaux.  As the head of the Cistercian monastic order he was the model of the disciplined and contemplative life – and he was a writer, preacher, strong adversary, and one of the most respected religious people of his age.  Bernard attributed the Second Crusade’s failure to the spiritual deficiencies of European Christendom.

Bernard was a staunch opponent of the new scholarly attraction for Aristotle and of the dialectical method that has come down to us as “scholasticism.”  Instead, Bernard promoted personalized and experiential methods of religious practice and promoted the cult of the Virgin Mary.  In the Divine Comedy Bernard appears at the very end of the poem, replacing Beatrice as the pilgrim’s guide to lead Dante to the Virgin Mary and the vision of God.

Along with many other kings and nobles, the Emperor Conrad III took part in the Second Crusade. One of his soldiers was the knighted Cacciaguida who died on the crusade.  See Paradiso 15.139-148.

Pluto and Neptune were in opposition in the early 1150’s, when Western Europe saw a tremendous amount of political and religious activity: the second Crusade had failed, the fight between Emperor and Pope for Northern Italy was beginning, and a conflict between religious conservatism and the new styles of philosophy had begun.  (The third quarter square occurred in the early 1320’s soon after Dante’s death.)


Italy and Empire

1156: Emperor Frederick Barbarossa stirs up trouble.  In this year there was an

Emperor Frederick of the Red Beard. A now-discarded symbol of German national pride.

important meeting between Pope (Adrian IV) and Emperor (Frederick I).  Frederick, far stronger than his predecessors, had come to Italy with his army, subdued a popular revolt that had exiled the Pope from Rome, and insisted that the Pope give him the crown.  Reluctantly and after a short impasse, Adrian crowned him Holy Roman Emperor.  In Germany there had been much conflict between Frederick’s family and the rival Welfs; the Emperor’s first order of business was to bring some amity between rival factions.  Being crowned by the Pope was certainly one way of doing this.

Relative calm in Germany and legitimization by the Pope helped Emperor Frederick onto his next goal – to appropriate northern Italy.  During the time of the Crusades the urban centers of Italy had become more prosperous, and they were theoretically part of the Holy Roman Empire.

Frederick’s dreams of greater empire ran into strong but uneven opposition.  Pope Adrian and his successors were rather displeased with Frederick’s claims and the independent cities resisted him.  The red bearded Emperor invaded Northern Italy six times but never established a permanent foothold there.  At times he would dominate the region but then chaos in the German states would bring him back home.

Some regions in Italy allied with Frederick, others with his German opponents.  (Florence, closer geographically to the Papal States, generally supported the Pope and stayed out of the fray.)  After Frederick captured and burnt Milan to the ground in 1162, many of the nearby city-states formed the Lombard League, eventually routed Frederick’s troops in battle, and the two sides settled in 1183. Although officially part of the “Holy Roman Empire”, the Italian cities retained considerable independence.

Frederick then set his sights upon the Norman kingdom of Sicily and, to begin a claim to that throne, married off his son to the niece of the Sicily’s ruler.  On his way to a Third Crusade, he died suddenly by drowning in 1190.

These events helped set the stage for the Italian politics of the thirteenth century that Dante was born into and that constitutes much of the Divine Comedy’s background.  Supporters of the House of Welf became Italy’s “Guelfs” who would usually take the Pope’s side in a dispute; followers of the Hohenstaufen family became the “Ghibellines”, named after a Hohenstaufen castle named Waibingen.  (You try to find an Italian equivalent to “Hohenstaufen.”)

1181: Heresies threaten the religious status quo.  In this year Pope Alexander III designated two religious groups to be heretical. One was called the Waldensians, named after its founder Peter Waldo.  This charismatic preacher, who had once been a merchant, gave away his possessions and preached poverty, the superiority of the simpler apostolic life, and individual study of the Bible.  The other movement was even more dangerous to the religious status quo.  Slowly emigrating from the East were the Cathars who, when they began to dominate southern France, were known as Albigensians.   They promoted a view that the world of matter was in the realm of Satan and therefore the Christian incarnation was impossible.  They also promoted a class of saintly people called the perfecti. This was not a Christian reform movement but an entirely new religion. Aided by indifferent or sympathetic local lords these groups began to attract many followers and grew to dominate the spiritual life of southern France and parts of northern Italy.

1187: A Virtuous Pagan Takes Back Jerusalem.  In this year Saladin and his force of Muslim troops recaptured Jerusalem and nearby Crusader States from their Christian occupiers.  Although a non-Christian, Saladin was considered virtuous by his Christian contemporaries.  (Unlike the Christians in the eleventh century he spared Jerusalem’s inhabitants when he captured the city.) We see Saladin in Dante’s first circle of Hell that is reserved for the virtuous pagans. The poet’s words require no translation: “e solo, in parte, vide ‘l Saladino.” (Inferno 4.129)  The result of Saladin’s success was another invasion from the west that history calls the “Third Crusade.”   This was the campaign that claimed the life of Frederick Barbarossa who accidently drowned. The Third Crusade ended in 1192 with a truce between Saladin and Richard “The Lionhearted” and there would be no further re-conquest of the Holy Lands

1194: Empress Constance and Frederick.  Frederic Barbarossa’s son Henry VI invaded and appropriated the Kingdom of Sicily that included southern Italy.  Henry had a claim on the throne, having been married to Constance who was the daughter of the kingdom’s last heir.   Henry was also the Holy Roman Emperor and therefore had claim to Germany, but his interests were eastward toward Constantinople and the Holy Lands.

 Henry unexpectedly died in 1197, leaving the widow Constance and a son three years old as the heir to the throne. Constance had

From a a fourteenth century manuscript. Hohenstaufen emperors were routinely excommunicated by the various Popes. In Purgatorio 3 Mandred leads a group of excommunicated people very slowly toward the healing torments of Purgatory’s mountain.

the good sense to name Pope Innocent III as the young boy’s guardian who proclaimed the toddler King of Sicily.  We hear of Constance twice in the Divine Comedy.  Manfred introduces himself in Purgatorio 3 not as the son of his father but the grandson of “Constanze imperadrice, “Empress Constance”.  In Paradiso 3, in the sphere of the Moon, Constanza is next to Piccarda who speaks of her as also having been taken from cloistered life and forced to marry for political reasons.

Innocent III would have been a natural ally of Sicily’s rival, the Welf-allied Otto IV in Germany.  The Pope did crown him Emperor but soon became disillusioned of him and instead backed the young Frederick instead.  Pope Innocent was hoping to take advantage of the young heir’s minority even if that meant the Pope backing a Hohenstaufen.   This strategy would backfire, and Frederick would become the Papacy’s affliction for decades.

We now enter the equally strange world of the thirteenth century.


Intellectual and Religious Revivals

1200: Intellectual Revival.  This year conventionally marks the beginning of the

University education back when. One inaccuracy is that it’s unlikely students would have had writing instruments or anything to write on.

university system. The university system became a fertile ground for the transmission of the works of Aristotle and others to the medieval culture, which became the basis for the intellectual renaissance of the thirteenth century. Accompanying the writings of “the Philosopher” were also the commentaries by the Islamic Averroes.  These new teachings were exciting and feared and there was great conflict for decades over them.  The epicenter for this conflict was the university at Paris.