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French reflections of the «Divine comedy» by Dante

Самарина Марина Сергеевна – доктор филологических наук, профессор Санкт-Петербургского университета

Abstract: The article reviews both philosophical and religious aspects of medieval French culture which influenced the creation of The Divine Comedy by Dante. Of particular importance in this context was the spread of medieval French and Provençal literature in Italy. A comparative and historical analysis shows that many episodes and characters in the text of The Divine Comedy are of French origin. The author concludes that French culture is an important foundation stone of The Divine Comedy.

Keywords: Dante, the Middle Ages, French culture.

Medieval Italian literature in the «pre-Dante» period is more than modest and incommensurable with the literature of other countries, especially that of medieval France. Noteworthy is Monteverdi's famous statement [1, p.3] about the absence of any significant achievements in the literature of medieval Italy before The Divine Comedy by Dante (1265-1321).

In Europe this was the time of France's absolute leadership. It was a brilliant era of the flourishing French chivalric culture, Provençal poetry, and French chivalric novels. In medieval Italy, familiarity with French culture was a must for an educated person. In the Middle Ages

France became the politically strongest and culturally most brilliant state of Western Europe namely because of something that Italy failed to have, i.e. strong centralization. In this sense, Italy and France were two completely different cultural spaces in terms of their centrifugal and centripetal tendencies, which brought to absolutely different consequences both culturally and linguistically per se, i.e. to the existence of a single nationwide literary language in France and, as opposed to that, a complete dialectal discord in Italy, which exists to this day.

What was the influence of French culture on Italy and how did it reveal itself?

First of all, it was the philosophical and religious aspect connected with the University of Paris chartered in 1200. Dante, a man of profound knowledge and education, mentioned it in the Divine Comedy; undoubtedly, he was familiar with the teachings of the great mystic Bernard of Clairvaux and knew of his philosophical conflict with the rationalist philosopher Abelard.

It would be reasonable to emphasize that France exported not only all that was advanced and progressive, but also the most marginal ideas and social movements. Those were the numerous heresies that captivated the entire northern Italy; the teachings of the Templars, which influenced Dante, and, of course, the very idea of the Crusades, which brought a radical change to the entire history of medieval Europe.

Another consequence and embodiment of the new mystical teachings was the Europe-wide spread of a new architectural style, the Gothic, which gained access to Italy through French monasticism: we only have to recall the well-known comparison of Dante's poem to a Gothic cathedral. It seemed that within the new Gothic vaults there also appeared the European drama based on the texts of the Holy Scripture [2] and as a successor to the liturgical church drama: religious mysteries became a magnificent and eye-catching spectacle that overwhelmed the medieval man.

French novels of chivalry also became a new phenomenon in European literature [3]. In the cycle of novels about the Holy Grail Celtic folklore, Christian apocryphal legends and folk heresies are intertwined: the chalice, the alchemical cup and the bowls of immortality merge into a single magical symbol. The novels of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, full of fantasy, mystery, the romance of distant travels, the search for the unknown and mysterious, reflect the legacy of ancient Celtic legends.

By the 13th century Old French literature had become widely known in Italy: translations of novels of chivalry had spread across the peninsula and become a favorite reading for the most diverse social; groups of the people. We all remember Dante's most famous episode of the fifth song of Inferno about the unhappy lovers Francesca and Paolo who, before their doom, were reading the French novel of Lancelot.

Since the 12th century there had been changes in the religious sphere as well: the social composition of monasticism began to change dramatically - the choice of a religious way of life became voluntary and was the result of a well-thought and independent decision of a mature individual; the monastic way of life was increasingly chosen by members of the aristocracy [4, p. 9-10]. This led to the emergence of such brilliant figures in Western monkhood as Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, San Francesco d'Assisi who became characters in Dante's Divine Comedy. They were all well acquainted with the secular life and culture of chivalry, aristocracy, and even the court. They naturally started to project the secular culture onto the religious one: they began to use courtly images and expressions in relation to the objects of religious worship, i.e. to Mary, Christ and other characters. This was the way Virgin Mary became the Beautiful Lady in the works by Bernard of Clairvaux. From the 12th century on, medieval religious literature abounded in love themes. In monasteries Virgin Mary has always been the object of worship and mystical love, and in convents that has always been Christ [5, p. 267-283]. It was in this mystical and poetic environment that young Dante created the image of his angel-like Beatrice.

Squads of French crusaders, crowds of pilgrims, and, of course, French and Provençal poets crossed northern Italy and went on further down the Apennine Peninsula. The main characters of French literature were also visually present in Italy: the figures of Roland and Olivier could be seen on the bas-relief of the 12th century cathedral of Verona; the characters of the Breton cycle were depicted on the bas-reliefs of one of the churches in Modena. Wandering singers and actors crossed the Alps to come to Italy. There on Italian squares they recited and presented epic poems about Roland and other characters of the French epic.

Courtoise poetry also flourished at Italian courts: after the Albigoy Crusade which devastated Provence many Provençal troubadours found refuge at Italian feudal courts, where they continued to create in an atmosphere of glory and honor. Italian poets themselves turned to the Provençal language as the one of high poetry. There were quite a number of Italian troubadours who wrote their poems in Provençal, including the most famous ones: Sordello, who appeared as one of the characters in Dante's Divine Comedy, and another character in the Divine Comedy, the troubadour Arnaut Daniel, who in Purgatory recited several tercins in Provençal.

In addition, Italian authors themselves often used French as the language of prose fiction. The most famous literary works in French created by Italians, who were Dante's contemporaries, were the historical Chronicle by the Venetian Martino da Canale, the encyclopedia Il Tesoro by Dante's teacher Brunetto Latini, and the no less famous book Il Millione by the great traveler Marco Polo of his adventure to the Orient.

This was also the time when along with the spread of French literature a flood of French and Provençal loanwords entered the Italian vocabulary. A lot of such loanwords could be seen in the text of Dante's Divine Comedy.

All this makes it possible to conclude that French culture, its literature, philosophy, and language are a most important part of the historical foundation on which the colossal phenomenon of European civilization, Dante's Divine Comedy, emerged.


  1. Monteverdi A. Studi e saggi sulla letteratura italiana dei primi secoli. –Milano: Napoli. Ricciardi, 1954.
  2. Andreev M.L. Srednevekovaya evropejskaya drama. Proiskhozhdenie i stanovlenie (X-XII vv.). М. 1989.
  3. Mikhailov A.D. Francuzskij rycarskij roman. М., 1976.
  4. Leclercq J. Monks and Love in Twelfth Century France: Psycho-Historical Essays. Oxford, 1979.
  5. Shishmarev V.F. Frederi Mistral// Istoriya ital'yanskoj literatury i ital'yanskogo yazyka. Izbrannye stat'i. Л.,1972.

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