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23.05.07 Schildgen, Dante and Violence

23.05.07 Schildgen, Dante and Violence

It is almost a truism of Dante Studies that the internecine warfare plaguing Italy during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had a profound impact on both Dante’s life and his vision of the afterlife. It is therefore surprising that dantisti are only now benefitting from the first truly systemic treatment of the subject of violence in the Commedia (2-3). Violence as a concept was certainly central to Dante’s understanding of sin: it was not only the sin punished in the Seventh Circle, but it is identified by many scholars as one of the three “dispositions” of the soul by which, according to Virgil, the entirety of Hell was organized (Inf. 11.81-83). In her very welcome monograph on the subject, Brenda Deen Schildgen establishes her ontology of violence in the Commedia, as well as the overall organization of her work, in the title: domestic, civic, and cosmic. These categories make it clear that she will not restrict herself to the most obvious locations and forms of violence in Dante’s afterlife, such as the aforementioned Seventh Circle or the shocking mutilation of the schismatics in Inferno 18. Indeed, Schildgen states that her focus is not the violent work of divine justice featured in Inferno, nor the “productive” violence by which sins are purged inPurgatorio (2-3). Instead, she considers Dante’s works in light of the most influential jurists, theologians, and philosophers of the medieval tradition in order to understand how violence fits into his larger conception of the human condition in the Age of Grace. As Schildgen argues, Dante contrasts the destruction of domestic and civic violence, which he understood as violations of natural and civil law, with the cosmic, redemptive violence of the Crucifixion, by which the incarnated Christ, freely and with divine love, chose to sacrifice himself for the sake of humanity.

Schildgen’s introduction begins with a brief overview of the most obvious examples of violence in the Commedia and how modern readers, from first-time students of the poem to the most sophisticated critics, have found it disturbing, some even alleging that it has promoted the idea of an unforgiving and vengeful God in the western tradition. She then lays out the three main categories of her own analysis, alternatively stated as “(1) the household; (2) civic and political domains; (3) the divine or cosmic realm,” (2) and moves on to establishing the gap in current scholarship on Dante that her work proposes to fill. Next, she broadens her discussion to modern theories of violence in the context of early modern and modern Europe. She defines and then critiques the “orthodox” view, which holds that the endemic private and internecine violence of medieval and early modern European society gradually declined due to the growing power of the centralized nation-state and its monopoly on violence. Schildgen, in agreement with more recent criticism, believes that this view grossly underestimates the systemic impact of modern state-sponsored violence, a lesson tragically demonstrated throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

For the purposes of her current study, she specifies that private and public violence were not so easily distinguished in Dante’s time, the causes of the two often intermingling and the outrages perpetrated inciting further escalation in both spheres. She then walks the reader through the appearances of the terms “vïolenza,” vïolenta,” and “vïolenti” in the Commedia and Convivio. She shows how, in Convivio and the Inferno, Dante tends to apply this set of terms to unnatural deaths, but in Paradiso, the concept of “vïolenza” is used in solving difficult theological questions about the freedom of the will and the mysterious salvation of Trajan and Ripheus. This thorough textual analysis allows her to reiterate the contrast at the heart of her argument. It is followed by a section on “Violence in Dante’s Time,” providing the reader with necessary background on the unstable political context of Dante’s life, the resultant violence that personally affected him, and how he gave it poetic expression. Schildgen’s careful joining of Dante’s experience of violence to his portrayal of it in theCommedia serves her thesis well; his mastery of affective poetry expresses a theological mystery, contrasting the corrupted loves driving human violence with the gracious love of the Redemption. Saving those same violent humans required an act of violence freely chosen by its victim and motivated by divine love. The introduction concludes with a helpful guide to the organization of the next four chapters and how they will demonstrate her claim (23-25).

In chapter 1, Schildgen draws on theological, philosophical, and legal sources to establish the theoretical framework within which Dante would have developed his understanding of violence. According to natural law, all humans are free and have the capacity to love freely. These principles were well supported in the civil and canon law of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, though regularly contravened, sometimes via force, due to social custom and political necessity. The corruption and misapplication of human freedom and love result in sin, and in some cases, violence. She also traces the emergence of the question of just versus unjust warfare in canon and civil law from the eleventh century onward, useful context for chapter 3’s treatment of the civic sphere. She ends the chapter by referring back to her thesis, again noting how Dante contrasted the selfish, misdirected love spurring human violence with the divine love that motivated the self-sacrifice of the Crucifixion.

Chapter 2 is dedicated to violence in the domestic sphere, though Schildgen restricts her analysis mainly to violence against women. She focuses on the stories of Francesca, Pia, Costanza, Piccarda, and Cunizza, who were either murdered by their spouses and/or forced to marry against their will. This allows the author to explore situations where these women’s freedom and capacity to love are violently compelled by their families and, given their class, by the larger social and political forces around them.

In chapter 3, we see how Dante attempts to reinforce the clear lines drawn in the theological tradition between justified and unjustified warfare, as well as justified and unjustified violence. The magnates of Dante’s day regularly exceeded these bounds in the exercise of political and military power, and his Inferno shows how he regarded those who participated in unjust warfare, vendettas, and other kinds of anti-social violence. Schildgen again notes how Dante connects aristocratic marriages to political power-brokering, reminding us of the interconnections between the domestic and civic sphere touched on in chapters 1 and 2. She lastly demonstrates how Dante tended to downplay the violence of the Roman wars of conquest, recasting them as just wars because they were so necessary to setting the earthly stage for the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Redemption.

Chapter 4 is dedicated to how these theological mysteries are portrayed in the Commedia, especially the redemptive violence of the Crucifixion. Schildgen observes that Dante tended to shy away from direct descriptions or discussions of the Crucifixion in the Commedia. This is a remarkable omission given that in his day, the Franciscans and Dominicans had so popularized the devotional practice of meditating on Christus patiens, an iconographic trope emphasizing the suffering humanity of the crucified Christ. Dante, she maintains, following Augustine and Francis himself, seemed far more comfortable with depicting Christus triumphans, stressing not the wounds and agony of the crucified Christ, but the great love he showed by freely choosing to become flesh and allowing himself to be sacrificed.

Schildgen’s book is a long-needed addition to the field and displays all the easy mastery, careful research, and insightful argumentation that one would expect from a senior literary scholar and a dantista of her calibre. Her treatment of violence in the Commedia, if not comprehensive, is an excellent starting point for new students of Dante seeking a solid introduction to this aspect of his thought and a framework to help contextualize the gorier parts of the Inferno and Purgatorio. Despite its expertise and persuasiveness, however, Schildgen’s treatment can be uneven due to her focus on those cases that best illustrate her argument. This selection bias is most obvious in chapter 2, where she does not offer much explanation for her decision to focus on marriage-related violence against women. Even the index entry for the “domestic sphere, violence in” directs the reader to “[s]ee family violence against women” (308). This choice seems to shrink the more comprehensive definition of domestic violence that she herself provides from recent scholarship: “domestic violence...includes social, psychological, economic, spiritual, physical, verbal, and sexual abuse of a wife, husband, daughter, son, and others.” [1] She chose five clear-cut examples of how she believes Dante theorized violence: all five victims were adult women of sound mind, suffering the forceful coercion of their God-given freedom, capacity to love, and free will.

Other scenes of domestic violence referenced in the Commedia are passed over in silence. While Schildgen cannot be expected to be comprehensive, we can also recognize her motivation in omitting scenes that would make for murkier exposition of her thesis. Some dramatic examples include the horrific infanticide of Learchus committed by Athamas in the opening lines of Inferno 30, followed by his wife drowning herself and their other son Melicertes in her desperation to escape; or the case of Myrrha, reported a few lines later, who tricked her father King Cinyras into an incestuous union (Inf. 30. 1-12, 38-41). Perhaps Schildgen avoids these examples because they are mythological allusions; she does, quite fairly, seem to prefer using historical people or events still preserved in the recent memory of Dante’s contemporaries.

However, if relation to Dante’s lived experience is indeed an important requirement for her, it is a shame that she does not spend any time on the anonymous Florentine suicide that we meet at the end of Inferno 13 (131-151). In the first volume of his Suicide in the Middle Ages, Alexander Murray provides a thorough and incisive analysis of this character and the Florence in which he lived and died. Murray establishes that, while early commentators suggested two possible historical candidates that the Florentine could have represented, it is more likely that this anonymous suicide was meant to be a dark Everyman, symbolizing how endemic suicide, and specifically suicide by hanging, had become in the Florence of Dante’s day. [2] Hence we see the use of the plural in his final line, much puzzled over by commentators: “Io fei gibetto a me de le mie case” (151, emphasis mine). I think it is likely that, just as Schildgen understandably did not want to deal with thorny theological issues like whether or not minors have free will or how medieval thinkers would have understood an incestuous sexual assault inspired by the pagan gods, she did not want to wade into the difficult waters of how natural human freedom, love, and will can turn so fatally against the self. While she is certainly capable and medieval thinkers certainly considered these questions, unpacking them for her reader would lead her far from her central argument.

Although Schildgen frequently notes how easily domestic and civic violence could intertwine in Dante’s time, she also tends to avoid or marginalize some other cases where her ontology is more strained. This applies to examples already presented: Athamas was the king of Boeotia and was maddened by the gods, so that awful scene could arguably be considered domestic, civic, and cosmic violence; the same could be said for Myrrha’s situation, as her father was also a king and, in some versions of the story, her incestuous love was inspired by Aphrodite. The anonymous Florentine suicide could also qualify as both domestic and civic violence, especially when we remember that medieval civil law considered the suicide a criminal who had committed felonia de se and whose goods were therefore forfeit to the state. [3] Lastly, but I think significantly, Schildgen puts what she terms a “codicil” on martyrdom in the conclusion of her work, noting with no explanation that she chose not to address the subject as a whole (205). She discusses selected martyrs to reinforce the idea, established in chapter 4, that Dante was reluctant to dwell on violent but salvific deaths in the Commedia. These seven pages of analysis could have supported this assertion from chapter 4 more effectively if they were included there, placing discussion of the martyrdoms of Cato, Stephen, and Peter alongside that of their redemptive archetype. Again, I think the concern here might have been that the subject of martyrdoms could easily turn the readers’ minds to the intersection of the civic and the cosmic. This would be especially true in a data set that included Cato and a St. Peter, who Dante depicts as condemning the temporal corruption of the medieval papacy. After all, the Crucifixion itself could be interpreted through a civic lens as well.

Despite these minor limitations, Schildgen’s monograph will be much appreciated by all dantisti and literary scholars who have been looking for a theoretical starting point for approaching questions about violence in the Commedia and in Dante’s thinking in general. Hopefully other scholars will be encouraged to build on the solid foundation she has laid and continue studying how Dante related the darkest impulses of humanity to the violent mystery that redeemed it.



1. From Eve Salisbury, Georgiana Donavin, and Merrall Llewelyn Price, “Introduction,” in Domestic Violence in Medieval Texts, ed. Eve Salisbury, Georgiana Donavin, and Merrall Llewelyn Price (Gainsville: University of Florida, 2002), 1-27.

2. Alexander Murray, Suicide in the Middle Ages, vol. 1, The Violent Against Themselves (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 84-92.

3. Murray, Suicide, 1:149.