Dante has a broad vision of schism – the schismatics have divided religion, cities, and families – but all are punished by being divided, split into parts. As they pass around their track they heal, only to be split again.
The pilgrims’ first interlocutor is Muhammad. Some medieval versions of the history of Islam counted Muhammad as a disappointed bishop or cardinal who went off and started his own religion – and, in fact, historians of early Islam still argue to what extent Muhammad did know Christians and Jews first hand in Mecca. It’s clear he had some contact, but accounts differ. Dante has him split almost in half, gruesomely.
There was a long tradition of depicting Muhammad in Hell – there is a particularly fine version in San Petronio in Bolgna which was threatened by al-Qaida in 2002. Here’s a link to an archive of images of Muhammad – you have to scroll a long way down to find it, but it’s worthwhile.
Some scholars like to see the Night Journey of Muhammad, in which he saw the torments of the damned and the pleasures of heaven, as a source for Dante’s journey. That’s possible, but unnecessary – there is a tradition that goes back to patristic times of narratives of just such journeys, including Purgatory. I’ll have to figure this out though before Fall, because the colleague with whom I will be team-teaching loves any sort of Islamic source. That comes from having lived in Spain too long, I think. I wonder if the Miraj, the legend of the Night Journey, had been translated, and if not how Dante is supposed to have known about it.
There’s a connection in this Canto to The Name of the Rose – Muhammad sends a message to Fra Dolcino that he should get in supplies. The fallout from the Dolcinists, a radical poverty movement that turned into a civil war at the turn of the 14th century in Italy, is a motivating factor behind a lot of the plot and a number of the characters in Eco’s novel.
Then after a number of relatively obscure civil-dividers the last interlocutor is the man who provided Doré with the subject for the illustration here – Bertran de Born, Provencal poet and encourager to civil war.
Clearly I saw, and the sight still comes back,
a trunk without a head come walking on
just like the others of that sullen pack,
That held the chopped-off head by the long hanks,
hanging like a lantern from his hand,
and the head gaped at us and said, Ah, me!”
He made himself a lamp unto himself
and they were two in one and one in two.
How that can be, He nows Who steers the helm.
Dante, who has mentioned lots of poets’ work, never mentions that Bertran de Born is a poet – even though Dante was very interested in the methods of the Provencal poets. Odd, that.
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