Canto 28: A Disposition to Divide

Broken+CrossBy Robert Rice

Whatever a man sows, that he will also reap (Gal 6:7)

The scene Dante and Virgil encounter in the ninth bolgia is that of wounds and mutilations beyond the poet’s capacity to fully describe. In lines 7 through 21 Dante draws on images of mass slaughter from classical and medieval examples of war and says that if all those mangled slain were assembled together, “it would be nothing to / the fashion of the filth in the ninth ditch” [lines 20-21]. This is how Dante presents to us schism and discord. These are compared to nothing less than war, with all its gruesome carnage.  

The souls punished in the ninth bolgia “sowed scandal and schism while they lived, / and that is why they here are hacked asunder” [lines 35-36]. As they created division among men, so their bodies are cut apart by a sword-wielding devil.

The first soul Dante and Virgil meet is that of Mohammed, who was regarded, not as the founder of a new religion, but as a heretic and schismatic. Hilaire Belloc, in his perspicacious and prescient chapter on “The Great and Enduring Heresy of Mohammed” in The Great Heresies, explains how this understanding of Islam may be so:

Mohammed . . . preached and insisted upon a whole group of ideas which were peculiar to the Catholic Church. . . . Thus the very foundation of his teaching was that prime Catholic doctrine, the unity and omnipotence of God. The attributes of God he also took over in the main from Catholic doctrine: the personal nature, the all-goodness, the timelessness, the providence of God, His creative power as the origin of all things, and His sustenance of all things by His power alone. . . . Mohammed preached with insistence that prime Catholic doctrine, on the human side—the immortality of the soul and its responsibility for actions in this life, coupled with the consequent doctrine of punishment and reward after death. . . . But the central point where this new heresy struck home with a mortal blow against Catholic tradition was a full denial of the Incarnation. Mohammed . . . taught that Our Lord was the greatest of all the prophets, but still only a prophet: a man like other men. He eliminated the Trinity altogether.

The soul of Mohammed looks up at Dante and, ripping open his chest, says, “See how I rend myself, / see how mangled is Mohammed!” [lines 30-31].

After speaking with two others, one “with his throat pierced through / and nose hacked off just where the brows begin, / and only one ear left upon his head” [lines 64-66], and another “whose hands had been chopped off, / raising his stumps up in the murky air / so that the blood from them befouled his face” [lines 103-105], Dante “saw a thing [he] would be loath / to mention without further proof” [lines 113-114]:

I truly saw, and seem to see it still,

            a headless body make its way

            like all the others of that dismal flock.

            And by its hair he held his severed head

            swinging in his hand as if it were a lantern.

            The head stared at us and said: ‘Oh, woe!’  [lines 118-123]

This, the soul of Bertran de Born, one of the great troubadours of the 12th and early 13th centuries, is punished for his reputed guilt in causing enmity between Henry II of England and his son Henry the Young King. The canto ends with Bertran’s explanation of the relationship between his sin and his punishment:

Because I severed persons thus conjoined,

            severed, alas, I carry my own brain

            from its starting-point here in my body.

            In me you may observe the fit punishment (lo contrapasso). [lines 130-142]

The last word in line 142 is the one place in the Commedia where Dante employs the name for the key concept of fit punishment, which determines the penalties in Hell and the penances in Purgatory: contrapasso, from the Latin contapassum ‘retaliation, retribution’.

Bertran de Born, whose contrapasso is to have his head separated from his body and carried about like a lantern, demonstrates most aptly his sin of having brought division between a royal father and his son. Bertran compares his sin to that of Achitophel who instigated Absalom to rebel against his father, King David (2 Sam 15–17).

From the religious schism inaugurated by Mohammed to the rift between a father and a son, we see the results of sowers of discord and division. Though such persons often excuse their actions by claiming to advance a greater good, their fruits always reveal the lie on which their claims are based. As Thomas Peterson suggests, they all seem to have an “inner disposition to divide,”2 and as Dante’s opening metaphor to this canto suggests, sins of scandal and discord are ultimately acts of war that destroy the peace and harmony desired by all men of good will. Although the two renowned figures who bracket the beginning and end of Canto 28 committed acts of schism and discord with far-reaching consequences, we must remember that we are all capable of less momentous acts of discord. Our divisive acts may not be recorded in the news media or in books of history, but they can nonetheless have devastating effects on a smaller scale—broken homes, breach of friendships, ill will within the Church, civic associations, businesses, etc. Have we not ourselves, at least in part, through our own small scale “acts of war” contributed to the troubled and violent society we find ourselves living in today?

The seventh beatitude enunciated by Our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount praises the virtue opposite the vice of the sowers of discord found in the ninth bolgia: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God” (Mt. 5:9).

            2Thomas Peterson, “Canto XXVIII: Scandal and Schism,” in Lectura Dantis: Inferno: A Canto-by-Canto Commentary, edited by Allen Mandelbaum, Anthony Oldcorn, and Charles Ross (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 372.

Dr. Robert Rice received his B.A. from U.C.L.A. and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Oregon. He was Associate Editor of the Middle English Dictionary at the University of Michigan, 1976-1981. He is now Professor Emeritus of English Language and Literature at Christendom College in Front Royal, VA. In addition to teaching in the English Lang. & Lit. Dept. for 32 years, he held the positions of Chairman of the English Language & Literature Dept. and Vice President for Academic Affairs. During that period he taught Dante’s Divine Comedy entire, as part of the core curriculum, numerous times.

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