Dante and BeatriceMEMS 3001: Researching the Medieval and Early Modern Past

2018 Theme: Dante’s Divine Comedy and Medieval Theories of Love

Winter Semester, 2018    Instructor: Erik Stephenson

Dante’s Divine Comedy is a love poem – among the greatest ever written – dedicated to the memory of his Beloved Lady, Beatrice Portrinari.  It is equally true to say that it is a poem about love – its misdirection in sin (Inferno), its purification through moral discipline and asceticism (Purgatorio), and its sublimation in the knowledge and love of God (Paradiso).  In other words, it presents, in poetical form, a comprehensive theory of the nature, origin, function, aim, corruption and rectification of human love.

Much ink has spilled in the attempt to understand this theory in all of its staggering complexity, detail, and scope.  This course will be a collective research project.  We will endeavour to shed new light on the Comedy’s theory of love by approaching it with the following research hypothesis: namely, that it represents a bold and original synthesis of the tradition of courtly love-poetry with the writings on love of the Cistercian mystics.  Even more precisely, our guiding hypothesis will be that the writings of the latter – particularly those of William of Saint-Thierry and Bernard of Clairvaux – can and should be used as a key to unlocking the meaning of the Comedy in terms of both its overarching structure and much of its detail.  Thus, this course will be divided into two parts.  In the first, we will acquaint ourselves with some of the relevant cultural background to the Comedy’s theory of love.  We will, first, read excerpts from the writings of the Cistercians William of Saint-Thierry and Bernard of Clairvaux, as well as from authors who influenced them (notably: Cicero, Augustine, Ambrose, Benedict of Nursia, and Gregory the Great).  Second, we will look briefly at the history and theory of Western Christian Monasticism – especially its Cistercian variant.  And, third, we will study representative authors from the medieval tradition of courtly love poetry up to and including Dante’s early Vita Nuova.  In the second part of this course, we will undertake a close reading of the Divine Comedy that will primarily be informed by the readings we will have done in the first part of the course, and that will seek to corroborate our research hypothesis.

Download syllabus here.