Mappa della Francia, Ortelius, ca. 1570

In the Divine Comedy France is often cited by means of frequent references to the political events in France in Dante’s time and to the historical events occurring in the immediately preceding centuries.  However, Dante did not have much sympathy for the political personalities in France in his time nor, even less, for the French royal family for which he had a cordial and immovable dislike which reached unusual heights in the case of Philippe Le Bel.

On the other hand Dante greatly appreciated the chansons de geste and the courtly novels of mediaeval French literature from which he drew inspiration at several points in the Divine Comedy.  So it seems to us to be nicer to dedicate the first part of this introduction to the relationship between Dante and the Chanson de Roland and to the novels of Chrétien de Troyes and his followers rather than to French politics.

La morte di Rolando, miniatura francese del sec. XVThe Chanson de Roland, written towards the end of the eleventh century, tells the story of the battle of Roncisvalle in 778 when the rearguard of Charlemagne’s army which was returning from Spain under the command of the knight-errant, Roland, was attacked and destroyed by the Saracens.  The bloody defeat was brought about by information which reached the enemy from the traitor Gano di Maganza, whom Dante called Ganellone and co-located, not by chance, with the damned of the Cocito (Hell, XXXII, 122).

In his journey to the depths of hell Dante gives a nod to the Chanson de Roland even before reaching the Cocito when, nearing the well of Malebolge, he hears the long, agonizing sound of the horn of Nimrod, one of the giants stationed round the well.  Indeed Dante says that that sound was even more terrible than the sound of the horn which Roland had blown desperately, wounded and in agony, in an attempt to call for help from the vanguard of his army at the moment when the defeat of Roncisvalle was already indicated (Hell, XXXI, 16-18):

Dopo la dolorosa rotta, quando
Carlo Magno perdé la santa gesta,
non sonò sí terribilmente Orlando.

These verses, in the French translation by Jacqueline Risset, sound like this:

Après la douloureuse défaite,
quand Charlemagne perdit son armée,
Roland ne sonna pas aussi terriblement.

Here are the same lines in the English version of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

After the dolorous discomfiture
When Charlemagne the holy emprise lost,
So terribly Orlando sounded not.

Il bacio tra Lancillotto e Ginevra, miniatura, sec. XVDante certainly knew of the French poet and writer Chrétien de Troyes and his novel Lancelot ou le Chevalier à la charrette. It was the first courtly novel (in verse) of the Lancelot and Genevieve cycle, of which several most fashionable prose adaptations followed during Dante’s lifetime.

The famous “book”, that Francesca da Polenta and Paolo Malatesta were reading, must have been one of these adaptations that told the story of Lancelot and Genevieve, wife of King Arthur, and their adulterous love affair helped along by the Court dignitary Galehaut (Galeotto).

And it is rightly this page of medieval French literature that inspired Dante’s famous verses that deal with the Paolo and Francesca episode (Hell, V, 127-138). Here following the verses are given in the original and in the French version by Jacqueline Risset:

Noi leggiavamo un giorno per diletto
di Lancialotto come amor lo strinse;
soli eravamo e sanza alcun sospetto.
Per più fiate li occhi ci sospinse
quella lettura, e scolorocci il viso;
ma solo un punto fu quel che ci vinse.
Quando leggemmo il disiato riso
esser basciato da cotanto amante,
questi, che mai da me non fia diviso,
la bocca mi basciò tutto tremante.
Galeotto fu ’l libro e chi lo scrisse:
quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante.

Nous lisions un jour par agrément
de Lancelot, comment amour le prit:
nous étions seuls et sans aucun soupçon.
Plusieurs fois la lecture nous fit lever les yeux
et décolora nos visages;
mais un seul point fut ce qui nous vainquit.
Lorsque nous vîmes le rire désiré
être baisé par tel amant,
celui-ci, qui jamais plus ne sera loin de moi,
me baisa la bouche tout tremblant.
Galehaut fut le livre et celui qui le fit;
ce jour-là nous ne lûmes pas plus avant.

Here are the same lines in the English version of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

One day we reading were for our delight
Of Launcelot, how Love did him enthral.
Alone we were and without any fear.
Full many a time our eyes together drew
That reading, and drove the colour from our faces;
But one point only was it that o’ercame us.
When as we read of the much-longed-for smile
Being by such a noble lover kissed,
This one, who ne”er from me shall be divided,
Kissed me upon the mouth all palpitating.
Galeotto was the book and he who wrote it.
That day no farther did we read therein.’


We of Dantepoliglotta are aware that this Introduction would not be complete if we did not spend a little time over Dante’s aversion to the French royal dynasty and, in particular, over the enormous loathing which the poet nurtured for Philippe Le Bel (Philip the Handsome) who was on the throne in his time.  A loathing which was so unbridled that it overflowed to the point of affecting other people who would not really have deserved such animosity (like the contemporary King Denis of Portugal of whom there will be further mention on another page of this site).

12th century portrayal of Hugh CapetDante’s severe accusations concerning Philip IV, known as Le Bel, are incorporated into the long invective uttered by Hugo Capet (and, through him, by Dante himself) against almost all the monarchs on the throne of France after him.

Hugo Capet was the king of France at the close of the tenth century.

Dante meets him in Purgatory, among the spirits which are paying for their sin of avarice, and he immediately addresses the poet with words of contempt for the line of the kings of France, especially Philip IV onto whom he invokes first of all divine vengeance for having used violence to keep the cities of Flanders [1] under the French yoke (Purgatory XX, 43-51): 

Io fui radice de la mala pianta
che la terra cristiana tutta aduggia,
sì che buon frutto rado se ne schianta.
Ma se Doagio, Lilla, Guanto e Bruggia
potesser, tosto ne saria vendetta;
e io la cheggio a lui che tutto giuggia.
Chiamato fui di là Ugo Ciappetta;
di me son nati i Filippi e i Luigi
per cui novellamente è Francia retta.

Words which look like this in Jacqueline Risset’s French translation:

Je fus racine de cet arbre mauvais
qui couvre d’ombre toute la chrétienté
si bien qu’on y cueille rarement un bon fruit.
Mais si Douai, Lille, Gand et Bruges
pouvaient, prompte serait la vengeance;
t moi je le demande à lui qui juge tout.
On m’appellait là-bas Hugues Capet;
de moi sont nés les Philippe et les Louis
par qui depuis peu la France est gouvernée

And this is how the same verses look when translated into English by Allen Mandelbaum:

I was the root of the obnoxious plant
that overshadows all the Christian lands,
so that fine fruit can rarely rise from them.
But if Douai and Lille and Bruges and Ghent
had power, then they’d soon take vengeance on it;
and this I beg of Him who judges all.
The name I bore beyond was Hugh Capet:
of me were born the Louises and Philips
by whom France has been ruled most recently.

Moreover, it seems that Dante never appreciated – in Philippe Le Bel – even that quality which subsequently was to create a great historical figure out of that monarch.  That is to say that Dante did not appreciate that King Philip’s policy was aimed at forming and strengthening the nation state in such a way that it was freed from all outside ties.  Our poet in fact remained bound to the traditional notions of the time based on the simultaneous presence of two great authorities, the Papacy and the Empire, and hoped that mankind’s destiny would continue to depend on their peaceful coexistence or their competition.

In other words, Dante did not believe in the new entity of the nation state which was establishing itself in England and France.  And even when he admonished the Emperor Albert of Austria for having left Italy to its fate («Ah, abject Italy, you inn of sorrows, / you ship without a helmsman in harsh seas») [2] he did not consider «that rather than an emasculated authority as that empire was from then on, a valid remedy for political chaos was able to be offered by a sovereign head of a single nation whose interests coincided with those of the people and whose strength was drawn from the people, such as was in effect Philippe Le Bel».[3]

On the other hand Dante, while displaying extreme distaste for the vices which sullied the Church’s image, was nevertheless a Catholic and did not appreciate Philippe Le Bel’s attitude towards the Pope which the Poet considered to be just a little too irreverent (we should say simply “lay”).

Faced with a papal bull from Pope Bonifacio VIII in 1301 which reaffirmed the supremacy of the papacy over all temporal sovereigns, King Philippe reacted vehemently with a convocation of the States General and, after being assured of the agreement of the country, cut off all links with the Papacy.  Next year Bonifacio VIII dared to reassert his concept in another similar bull and King Philippe reacted by actually ordering the pontiff to be brought before a council to be deposed.

Lo schiaffo di Anagni, incisione francese del sec. XIXA tumultuous period ensued which came to a head in the so-called Anagni slap:  a group of conspirators erupted into the papal palace in Anagni, a town in Latium where Bonifacio was born, abducted him with a certain amount of force and kept him prisoner for a few days.  The wretched man came out of this under such duress that he died not long afterwards.

Dante, while detesting Bonifacio VIII whom he considered to be simoniacal and a usurper of the papal seat, severely criticised this offence against the dignity of the papacy.  Naturally Dante saw the hand of Philippe Le Bel even in this exploit which – says Hugo Capet again – makes all the other past and future misdeeds of his successors pale into insignificance.  In fact the eruption into the palace of Anagni of the royal symbols of France (the fleur-de-lys) has caused Christ himself in the person of his vicar to be captured, mocked, mistreated and killed a second time, and for good measure between two thieves once again.  The allusion is aimed at the two principal perpetrators of the coup, William of Nogaret and Sciarra Colonna who, unlike the two original thieves, survived with impunity.

This is how Hugo Capet stigmatised the Anagni coup with attribution of its genesis to King Philippe (Purgatory XX, 85-90):

Perché men paia il mal futuro e ‘l fatto,
veggio in Alagna intrar lo fiordaliso,
e nel vicario suo Cristo esser catto.
Veggiolo un’altra volta esser deriso;
veggio rinovellar l’aceto e ‘l fiele,
e tra vivi ladroni esser anciso.

Words which look like this in Jacqueline Risset’s French translation:

Pour que semble moins grand le mal fait et à faire,
je vois à Anagni entrer la fleur de lys,
et Christ être captif dans son vicaire.
Je le vois à nouveau être bafoué,
je le vois abreuvé de vinaigre et de fiel,
et mis à mort entre larrons vivants.

And this is how these verses have been translated into English by Allen Mandelbaum:

That past and future evil may seem less,
I see the fleur-de-lis enter Anagni
and, in his vicar, Christ made prisoner.
I see Him mocked a second time; I see
the vinegar and gall renewed-and He
is slain between two thieves who’re still alive.

But Hugo Capet’s invective against Philippe Le Bel reached its peak in the last part where divine vengeance is once again invoked onto the head of this monarch – contemptuously defined as “the new Pontius Pilate” – guilty also of having given rein to his greed (not satisfied with the sins already committed) by persecuting the Order of Templars with the aim of making their wealth his.  In fact the Order of the Knights Templar was suppressed in 1312 by the wish and action of King Philippe IV who had the Templars arrested on the charge of heresy, handed them over to the Inquisition and put many to death with refined cruelty after having taken possession of their goods.

Here are the final words of Hugo Capet’s invective (Purgatory XX, 91-96):

Veggio il novo Pilato sì crudele,
che ciò nol sazia, ma sanza decreto
portar nel Tempio le cupide vele.
O Segnor mio, quando sarò io lieto
a veder la vendetta che, nascosa,
fa dolce l’ira tua nel tuo secreto?

Words which look like this in Jacqueline Risset’s French translation:

Je vois le nouveau Pilate si cruel
qu’il n’est pas rassasié, mais porte dans le Temple,
sans décrets, ses vaisseaux avides.
0 mon Seigneur, quand aurai-je la joie
de voir la vengeance qui, encore cachée,
rend douce en secret ta colère ?

And this is how these verses have been translated into English by Allen Mandelbaum:

And I see the new Pilate, one so cruel
that, still not sated, he, without decree,
carries his greedy sails into the Temple.
O You, my Lord, when will You let me be
happy on seeing vengeance that, concealed,
makes sweet Your anger in Your secrecy?

[1] Hugo Capet alludes to Flanders, naming the four principal cities of his time: Douai and Lille, still in French territory, as well as Gent and Bruges, now in the Flemish part of Belgium.

[2] Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of the original verses of Purgatory, VI, 76-77: «Ahi serva Italia, di dolore ostello, / nave sanza nocchiere in gran tempesta». Here are the same verses in the French translation of J. Risset: «Hélas! serve Italie, auberge de douleur, / nef sans nocher dans la tempête».

[3] S. Saffiotti Bernardi, Enciclopedia Dantesca, Vol II, p. 877.

Filippo il Bello