Money in Dante’s Inferno

Categories: ECONOMIC HISTORY

An eminent poet and also a highly political being, Dante Alighieri was born around 1265 at Florence and died in exile at Ravenna in 1321. He lived the upheaval of his era which was defined in Italy by the rivalry of the Guelphs with the Ghibellines and in a broader context by the conflict between the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy. In 1301 the poet was forced to leave his city because of the civil struggle between the Black Guelphs and the White Guelphs ― he supported the latter. During his twenty-year exile he wrote his opus magnum entitled La Comedìa, which became renowned later as La divina commedia. Dante began writing around 1308 this long poem, placing the action time in the year 1300. This is an epic allegory written in Italian, where in the three sections of the poem (InfernoPurgatorioParadiso) is impressively displayed the medieval world-view through the eyes of Dante.

Dante’s poem is full of references to historical persons and as an epic is related to history. It is well known that the knowledge of History is impossible without the understanding of its economic aspect. In his Comedy ― especially in the first part, Inferno ― Dante included the problem of money and the matter of the stance towards it. In rather simplifying terms, economics through the ages deals with the study of the choices concerning the management of human needs. Hell (as viewed by Dante) is the cancellation of the possibility to have choices, the nullification of consuming and profit-making, the pinnacle of constraint. However, it is also a place where all those who have chosen sin have to pay and, moreover, for an eternity. From this perspective and in association with the attitude of the Church, which determines what is sin and has a saying on the fate of those who fall in it, Dante’s thoughts on human choices are quite interesting, as well as their evaluation in the analytical classification of sinners he attempts.

Regarding the sins that have to do with money first are mentioned the prodigal and the avaricious, those who in their life wasted money and those who miserly hoarded it. Both they are punished in the Fourth Circle of the Inferno to carry great weights, bumping into each other in constant movement (Canto VII).
To the Seventh Circle of the Inferno are condemned the violent, in a smouldering desert under fiery rain: in the inner ring, alongside with those who turn against God (blasphemers) and those who go against nature (sodomites) lie also the usurers, because “usury offends divine goodness” and because “the usurer offends nature and art” (Canto XI). The usurers, sat on the burning sand, are tormented by having purses hung from their necks, keeping their eyes constantly on them (Canto XVII). Among the damned is Reginaldo degli Scrovegni from Padua; for Reginaldo’s soul his son built the Scrovegni Chapel (Cappella degli Scrovegni) with frescoes executed by Giotto.
The Eighth Circle of the Inferno, called Malebolge and destined for those who committed fraud, is divided into ten “pits” or “ditches” (bolgie). In the third “pit” (bolgia) are punished the simoniacs, i.e. the ones who paid in order to obtain high ecclesiastical offices. They are stuffed upside down in holes cut into the rock, while flames come from the soles of their feet, as in an inverted baptism (Canto XIX). Pope Nicholas III is there, guilty for simony, and for the same offence is ‘predicted’ the punishment of Popes Boniface VIII (1294-1303) and Clement V (1305-1314).
In the seventh “ditch” suffer the thieves; snakes pursue them, curl about them and bite them; the damned undergo terrible transformations and mutate into serpents that devour each other, in a prolonged reptilian existence fitting to their former lives (CantosXXIV-XXV).
Finally, in the tenth “pit”, the last one of this Circle, rot the falsifiers. Among them are included the alchemists (forgers of things), the impostors (forgers of persons) the perjurers (forgers of words) and the counterfeiters (forgers of coins). Those who constituted diseases of society when they were alive, they are afflicted now with various horrible diseases; some of them run berserk and tear down other sinners (Canto XXX). It is rather impressive that the falsifiers are placed by Dante one step before the Ninth Circle, Inferno’s last, where in a frozen lake are eternally tortured the traitors. However, it should be considered that counterfeiting was a severe crime which often brought the capital punishment in medieval societies, both in Byzantium and in the West.

Midway upon the journey of his life, Dante stands and reckons with little tolerance money and those who use it for their advantage. In his Inferno the abuse of money is cause for punishment in various forms of torture; the wicked will have to abandon all hope at the gates of Hell.

Yannis Stoyas

Leave a Reply