Considered to be the preeminent work of Italian literature, and one of the greatest works of world literature, Dante’s epic poem is an intimidating prospect. But how might this work of 1300 be of interest to a modern reader? At the very least the text provides an important insight into the medieval mindset: these people who believed in the literal truth of the bible and the full panoply of spiritual beings and places are no longer the religious people of today, who have a more nuanced understanding of the bible and the afterlife. Revenge seems uppermost in Dante’s mind: God is gunning for all those who disagree with Dante, those who do not work towards the same ends he does, which is the return of the law and order of a Roman Empire. Let the church rule the spiritual world; the physical and political world of 1300 Europe needed, apparently, all power concentrated in the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor.
Ending up in hell or purgatory was the fate of all those who did not believe in the Christian god (either because they were born before they had the chance – Plato, Virgil and all those chaps – or born in a distant land), or those who sinned a bit too much and never really sought forgiveness. So Hell and Purgatory are pretty full. Yet heaven is packed to the eaves with blissed out people bathing in the light of the love of God for all eternity. And where does Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise take him? Enlightenment. True belief. Faith. This is one of those ancillary texts that feature in every religion, which seem to shape that faith as much, if not more than, the faith’s primary texts, usually what are considered to be the directly revealed words of God.
1300 people are certainly weird. But the main thing that hasn’t changed is the notion of “love”. Dante’s love for Beatrice which informs this work as well as many of his earlier love poems, would be very familiar to the modern reader of cheap romance novels and the modern viewer of sentimental blockbuster romances or corny soap operas: love is the greatest bond between two people, love is all-consuming, love is beautiful, love is a distinct feeling, love is not merely physical (indeed, best stripped of all its physical accoutrements), and love is transcendent: it lasts beyond life. Not much difference between the love Dante feels for Beatrice in 1300 and the love that Heathcliff feels for Cathy in 1847, in Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Funny that.