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This is the electronic edition of Jesper Hede: "Dante in the Hermeneutic Circle of European Consciousness". Working Paper no. 72-98, Centre for Cultural Resarch, University of Aarhus, 1998.

The pagination of the printed edition is indicated by red numbers marking the beginning of the page.

ISBN: 87-7725-219-5

Electronically published October 2, 1998

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Jesper Hede

Dante in the Hermeneutic Circle of European Consciousness

Abstract The article examines Dante's concept of Europe and its cultural implications. By using the notion of the hermeneutic circle with referece to two studies by Robert Bartlett, it argues against the way in which Edward Said transforms Dante's indivdual concept of Islam into a generality in European history.

The Hermeneutics of Medieval Europe In his historical sociological analysis of The Making of Europe Robert Bartlett argues that in the period from 950 to 1350 "a more uniform cultural pattern was created and extended on the [European] continent" and "by 1300 Europe existed as an identifiable cultural entity."[1] This conclusion is, of course, based on a modern terminology formed by the general knowledge of the historical development of Europe as a region and an idea after the Middle Ages. It does not reflect how medieval Europeans defined themselves. In an article on "Patterns of Unity and Diversity in Medieval Europe", written after The Making of Europe, Bartlett gives an answer to this question: "In the medieval period the terms "Europe" and "European" were known, but they were used rather infrequently and hardly ever with much political and cultural significance ... If "Europe" had no ring to it, terms like "Christendom" and "the Christian people" did ... Europeans of the thirteenth century did not think of themselves as Europeans; but the vast majority of them were and would describe themselves as Christians ... Medieval Europe was thus a society of the baptized."[2]


If we put these two approaches to the question of the Middle Ages in a European context together, the result is a historical perspective in which the medieval contribution to the "Europeanization of Europe" mainly lies in the unconscious development of mechanisms that later became overtly present in

the development of Europe as a region and an idea. Therefore, in The Making of Europe, Bartlett reasonably points at why his explication of an "increasing cultural homogeneity coupled with stark cultural divisions should have a familiar ring for those who study later periods of history, including our own." One important reason is, again in Bartlett's words, that "mental habits and institutions of racism and colonialism were born in the medieval world."[3] However, in addition to this conclusion, it should be emphasized that although medieval Europe contributed to the formation of the basis for a conscious European exploitation of non Europeans in later periods, medieval Europeans did, of course, have no idea that this was the case. Thus "medieval Europe" and "medieval Europeans" are only terms that make sense in a diachronic perspective with focus on the historical self-knowledge of modern Europeans or Westerners. We are not referring to the self-identity of medieval people. The medieval identity is not placed in a synchronic perspective that is the medieval period. This difference between synchronic and diachronic analysis is reflected in Bartlett's two studies: The Making of Europe establishes a diachronic perspective, while the article outlines the premises for a synchronic approach to the question of identity in the Middle Ages. Together the two perspectives constitute a preliminary framework for discussing aspects of European identity in the medieval period. On the one hand it is possible to characterize to what degree an identifiable cultural entity existed toward the end of the period in question. On the other hand this homogenization was established without a European consciousness of any political and cultural significance. This seems to


be a contradiction but is in fact a preliminary definition of the historical relation between the medieval period and modern times.

The reason for outlining such a framework is that it helps to clarify the premises for confronting an individual case of medieval identity in a European context. In this article I will focus on the concept of Europe and its cultural implications found in the works of a medieval personality as the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), who lived exactly around the time when the cultural homogenization of Europe Bartlett examines had taken place. Since the subject is an individual and not, as in Bartlett's case, a general concept, the first thing that has to be settled is how the individual case extends the framework. To this purpose I want to make use of the dialectics of interpretation represented by the notion of the hermeneutic circle. In general this notion is conceived to have two fundamental aspects. First, there is the structural one: elements can only be understood in terms of the meaning of their whole, and the whole can only be understood in terms of the meaning of its elements. Second, there is the temporal one: the past can only be understood in the light of the present, and the present can only be understood in the light of the past. The extension I here propose is a combination of both aspects with emphasis on individual versus general as the structural aspect and synchronic versus diachronic as the temporal aspect.

If we return to Bartlett's analysis, the meaning of these distinctions becomes clear. On the one hand, in The Making of Europe, Bartlett treats the medieval period as an unquestionable element of the whole of European history. He shows why medieval Europe can be seen as a cultural legacy of European identity, and this connection is established by a diachronic approach to the question of the medieval period in a European context. On the other hand, in the article, he points at why the medieval period can be seen as a periodical whole in which different existential elements formed a cultural identity that was not explicitly European. Medieval people had other motives for placing their self-


identity in a different context, that is, mainly because of the way they were Christians. This notion reflects a synchronic approach to the question of identity in the Middle Ages. Thus the apparent contradiction is due to the temporal opposition between the synchronic and the diachronic perspective. However, the two perspectives have one thing in common: they present a framework of generalizations, partly from a point of view that seeks to understand how the medieval period is or can be incorporated in the historical self-knowledge in contemporary time, and partly from a point of view that tries to determine the difference between medieval and modern cultural outlook by stressing the main aspects of self-identity in the medieval period. Thus on a level of generalizations Bartlett's studies establish the synchronic versus diachronic dimension of medieval identity in a European context.

By focusing on an individual subject as Dante's concept of Europe I intend to examine, in a short and schetchy manner, an example of the opposed part of the hermeneutic framework, that is, the synchronic versus the diachronic dimension on an individual level. I believe that by placing Dante within this framework it is possible to outline the premises for determining whether or not he possesed any kind of a European consciousness and to what extent his concept, consequently, can be used as source and reference in discussions on modern European identity issues. Firstly, I will characterize how Dante defined the geography of his contemporary Europe and what constituted his existential identity. Secondly, I will focus on his knowledge of Islam in order to determine how he confronted what was outside his existential horizon. The purpose of this examination is to propose a critique of the way in which Edward Said in his famous and controversial book on Orientalism from 1978 presents Dante's attitude toward Islam as an example of a generality in European history. Said's interpretation of, or rather references to, Dante and his Divine Comedy exemplify a general problem concerning the use of medieval references on contemporary issues. The problem is due to the fundamental difference in


motives for reflections on self-identity and it is contained in Bartlett's notion of the lack of a European consciousness in the period in question. There is no need to stress the incapability among medieval Europeans of placing their existential identity in a European context. The case is that there was no necessity for such an existential placement. Thus, when we try to establish a historical line between medieval and modern Western identity, it is the historical development of a European consciousness we are studying, that is, how decisive mechanisms were unconsciously formed in the medieval period, and how these mechanisms were consciously exposed and transformed in later periods. This is both the relation and the distinction between the Middle Ages and modern times. The mechanisms constitute the relation, and the exposition and transformation constitute the distinction. Although Dante expresses just one out of many medieval reflections on self-identity, I believe that his concept of Europe outlines some of the problems of using individual medieval cases as expressions of generalities in discussions on the historical development of a European consciousness.  

The Geography of Dante's Europe From a historical-philological point of view, Dante's concept of Europe can best be defined as geographic, or rather as a matter of "cosmography", which for Dante was the discipline that included the determination of the different parts of the surface of the earth. According to Dante the globe was divided into two parts: the one was covered by a great ocean with the Mount of Purgatory with the Earthly Paradise on the top as the only land, and the other one was the inhabited part divided into Europe, Africa and Asia. Although he believed that Europeans, Africans and Asians formed the human race, his concept of being a European never refers to a specific cultural identity. The only aspect in his works that indicates such an identity is his statement that Europe was populated by tribes that came from the Orient (De vulgari eloquentia, I, viii, 1-2). Not even


religiously did he believe Europe to be identical with the domain of the Christian Church; he explicitly states that the majority of the inhabitants in his contemporary Europe did not recognize the authority of the Church (De monarchia, III, xiv, 7). Neither was the imperial authority limited to only a European context, but went beyond the borders of Europe (Epistola VII, 11). However, although in his works the Church is often criticized in favour of the Empire, it was for him as for many other Christians in Europe an unquestionable fact that the placement of both authorities in Europe was due to a divine providence: Rome was the holy place of the Church because Saint Peter - "il maggior Piero" (Inf. 2: 24) - had died there as the first pope; and with Rome as the capital Italy was the garden of the Empire - "il giardin de lo'mpero" (Purg. 6: 105). Throughout the medieval period the different aspects of this idea did, as is well known, developed into a conflict between clerical and secular power in the life of the Christians in Europe. But for Dante Europe was still just one part of the inhabited world and the Europeans were only those living there.

In the Divine Comedy, for example, the term "Europa", signifying the continent as such, occurs three times and only refers to something comparable to a geographic entity: Dante places the fame of the Tuscan Malaspina family in a greater territorial context than Italy, that is, in "tutta Europa" (Purg. 8: 123); he refers to Constantin the Great's transferring of the imperial power to the extreme (Eastern) part of Europe where Aeneas had departed at the fall of Troy (Par. 6: 1-6); and he says that each year Spring comes alive by (Western) winds from that part of Europe where St. Dominicus was born (Par. 12: 48). If we look for similar statements that broaden the geographic elements of his concept, we might note that he had a knowledge of the kingdom of Norway (Par. 19: 39) and he was convinced that beyond the Strait of Gibraltar the great ocean expanded all the way to the Mount of Purgatory, which was created when Lucifer was cast out of the Heavens and fell to the interior of the earth (Inf. 34). Other references, as to the river Tanais or


Don (Inf. 32: 27) in Russia and the imaginative Riphean mountains (Purg. 26: 43) in the same region, state that Dante believed that somewhere under a cold sun, "sotto il freddo sole" (Inf. 32: 27), Europe became Asia - the Partem Asiae populated by those "we now call Greeks", as he says, after the Babylonian confusion (De vulgari eloquentia, I, viii, 2).

Dante's knowledge of Asia, and also that of Africa, was very vague, and furthermore it was anachronistic in the dependence on classical sources (especially Paulus Orosius's Seven Books of History against the Pagans were important, which is seen in the second book of Dante's De monarchia). But so was his knowledge of the different regions and the extension of Europe, however, to a lesser extent. When we almost naturally place the historical Dante in a European context or expose Dante the author as a canonical representative of the Western literary tradition, it is not because he possessed any particular knowledge of Europe or deliberately excluded the rest of the world; nor is the reason that his way of thinking was fundamentally different from that of Muslim and Jewish thinkers in the medieval period or that his poetic creativity primarily expressed a particular Western tradition. It is true that his religious terminology reflects a medieval Christian perception that on the one hand showed signs of openness to new impulses and cultural exchange and on the other hand was aggressive and practised persecution and preached crusades. But his placement in a European context is not primarily due to his being a Christian. Neither is it possible to see him as a European as result of an opposition to other religious world views because of differences in "outlook, manners, customs and interest", which according to Norman Daniel are the elements by which the medieval cultures expressed their differences.[4] The reason why he might be defined as a European is rather that his geographic horizon was narrow, and this narrowness had a determining effect on his existential and cultural outlook. By using the word "narrow" I do not imply than his horizon was narrower than others in


medieval Europe. On the contrary, for its time his knowledge was exceptional. But in a synchronic perspective he is only a European because he lived in a part of the world that later was transformed into an idea with a geographic placement in a specific region.

The characterization of the Italian peninsula as the most noble of all the European regions exemplifies how many of Dante's ideas originated in his existential boundness in a specific geographic context (De monarchia, II, iii, 17). Although he situated Jerusalem in the "cosmographical" centre of the mortal world, the peninsula was, of course, the centre of the Christian world because the Church and the Empire had their origins there. But at the same time it was also just the region he knew best. That explains why references to Italians and conflicts rooted in the peninsula are so frequent in the Comedy. His position to papal or imperial authority in worldly matters is another and more complex issue that exemplifies his geographic boundness. His life in the midst of conflicts between Guelfs and Ghibellins throughout the peninsula and between the Black and the White fraction in Florence and its surroundings led to pragmatic reflections on how resolve the conflict between papal and imperial authority. For Dante it was a social necessity that the imperial authority should be strengthened. It was the only way to secure stability and avoid despotical exploitation and persecution. Furthermore, he was convinced that there were both historical and theological justifications for his thoughts in this respect. However, when he treats issues that have both a concrete political and an abstract theological dimension, it is characteristic how the narrowness of his horizon influenced his belief in their universal significance. There is nothing that indicates decisively that he strove toward an unified Christian Europe. His aim was a stabilization of power within his own existential context. In simplified terms: firstly, he thought of his native city, Florens, secondly, of Italy, and only


thirdly, of Europe. That is, his horizon was too narrow to include the whole continent as an existential and cultural entity.

The question is, then, what does Dante's concept tells us about the historical development of a European consciousness? In other words: what is the result if we transfer the synchronic perspective of Dante's individual concept to a diachronic perspective on an individual level? Since in the medieval period there did not exist any European consciousness to determine how European culture could or should be realized and defined, the understanding of the medieval contribution to this development depends essentially on the understanding of the existential and cultural context in which the elements of this development were constituted, either consciously or unconsciously. In a diachronic perspective Dante's individual concept of Europe, particularly as expressed in the Comedy, is primarily an example of how, as Thomas K. Seung has put it, "the thematic ideas of literary work are derived from its cultural context, which constitutes the existential context of its author."[5] Thus there are two things to be noticed about Dante's concept of Europe. First, historically the differences between his concept and modern European consciousness are more significant than their relations and similarities: Dante only becomes a European when his existential and cultural identiy is incorporated in a diachronic perspective on a level of historical generalizations. Second, as a result of the differences the interpretive perspective and strategy have to be emphasized in the interpretive act, that is: the relation between the author and the interpreter, between the author's text and his context, between the author's text and the interpreter's context, and between the author's and the interpreter's context.  

Dante's Existential Identity As pointed out by Bartlett, medieval people, in the West as in the East, defined themselves first of all as Christians. Dante was no exception. He thought that


Christendom should be the existential foundation and horizon of all human beings and that the implicit obligations of the baptism were the essence of the life of the Christians: to believe in the Trinity, to make disciples of all "nations" and to follow the teachings of Christ (Matt. 28: 19-20). That was the basis for his cultural outlook and boundness. By pointing out the condemned, the purifying and the blessed souls in the three realms of the Comedy and explicating the connection between what they did in their bodily state and what consequences their worldly doings had for their placement in the Other World, Dante gives a personal statement about how the Christian teachings should or could be individually appropriated and the baptism actualized in the life of the Christians. On a narrative level this may very well be called the main theme of the Comedy.[6] In principles the baptism was thus conceived as the precondition for salvation. The idea of a transition from an unsaveable to a saveable state of the soul does, of course, suggest that conversion by baptism was the primary objective for a Christian like Dante. When he calls Jews, Saracens and Gentiles for "the champions of impiety" (impietatis fautores), the impression is that he saw them as natural objects for conversion Ñ they were non Christian "nations" to be baptized (Epistola XI, 4). But in the Comedy it is repeatedly, both explicitly and implicitly, emphasized that there are more important things to be overcome among the Christians themselves before conversion by baptism of non Christians could be actualized in agreement with the Christian teachings.

When the theme of conversion is explored in the Comedy, it is not the physical but the metaphysical transition Dante is concerned with, that is, the steps of the soul within the scheme of "sin-grace-freedom" toward a total conversion. This might be characterized as the change Dante undergoes throughout the narrative of the Comedy. When Beatrice leaves him in the Paradiso near the end of his journey, he says that she has released him from


slavery (of sin) and given him freedom: "Tu m'hai tratto di servo a libertate" (Par. 31: 85). The reason for this statement is that by the mercy of the Virgin Mary Beatrice was the one who set the whole journey in motion (Inf. 2) when she gave Vergil the task of guiding Dante through Hell and Purgatory in order to bring him back on the right path and later by replacing Vergil in the Earthly Paradise (Purg. 30) and guiding Dante through the Heavens of Paradise to the final vision of the Trinity, which is obtained only as a result of St. Bernard's prayer to the Virgin Mary (Par. 33). Throughout the entire work Dante explores the metaphysical complexity of conversion in accord with the two fundamental "disciplines" of Christian thought in the medieval period: 1) psychology (the understanding of the soul), that is, the epistemological principle for approaching God, and 2) theology (the understanding of God), that is, the ontological principle for the existence of the soul.[7] The theme of conversion is thus treated as an issue within medieval Christian metaphysics. Dante never significantly develops it into a question of how to convince and convert non Christians or how to condemn and persecute those who deliberately reject and persist conversion. The reason is simply that Dante never locates the threat of Christendom outside the Christian domain, which generally had been the case in the early times of the crusades, but rather inside the same. The result of his horizontal narrowness was a fundamental concern with Christendom itself that reflects indirectly the question of what would be the use of converting non Christians when what they were given instead of their misbelief was instability and conflicts of dispute and power. Naturally Dante wanted the whole of mankind to be baptized and christianized. But he was fundamentally disillusioned with how Christendom was represented by the Church and the Pope, and this disillusionment had a decisive effect on his ability to understand


what was outside Christendom; it might even be argued that it determined his general conceptions in such a way that nearly all of his most disparaging remarks about non Christian people, ideas and attitudes contain significant references to related Christian topics.

Now the Bible and the history of Christendom and the presence of Jewish communities in Europe supplied Dante with a clear idea of where to place the Jews in a Christian context and in accordance with the Redemption:

they were living testimonies of why Christ had been crucified, and subsequently they were given a historical significance in the Christian exegesis. But for Dante and most Christians living in Europe the monotheistic religion of Islam was unplaceable in a Christian context. The Christian way of interpreting historical events as prefigurations of the eternal world could not provide any clear explanation for the emergence and presence of Islam. Therefore, when Christians throughout the medieval period called Muslims either pagans or heretics, it was the only way that they could place the Muslims in a Christian context: they were either non Christians who had no knowledge of the teachings of Christ or heretics who mixed up Christian doctrines with non Christian ones. Hence the prejudices of the medieval Christians toward an external element such as Islam cannot be explained as a result of lack of information or because the cultural exchange never had any existential impact. The reason is rather that medieval Christians were incapable of integrating the historical dimension of Islam in any other way than that of paganism or heresy. This is by no means an exceptional way of formulating religious oppositions. On the contrary, throughout history it has been a common feature in many religions, although reasons for exclusions have differed from one religion to another, as they still do. In Christendom exclusions were formed mainly in two ways: Judaism was seen as the formation stage of the Christian notion of Redemption, and other religious conceptions were opposed as paganism or heresy or a combination of both in accordance with the history of Christendom - the majority of Christians


were converted pagans, and Christian orthodoxy was formed in opposition to heretical movements. Dante's treatment of Muslims in the Comedy shows that this was a common Christian practise. The pattern of exclusion was actually one of integration.  

Dante and Islam Dante's attitude toward Islam might seem as a controversial subject. But as a matter of fact there is hardly anything in the Comedy or elsewhere in Dante's works that suggests that he was much concerned with the Islamic world as an existential threat to the Christian world. He might have know of some of the fundamental religious differences, but two things prevented him for formulating a clear distinction between his Self as a Christian and the Other as represented by Islam: 1) his horizontal narrowness, and 2) the existential similarities between Islamic and Christian culture in the medieval period, as Norman Daniel has pointed out: "The differences between the two religions are fewer and smaller than the points they hold in common; in the course of time much greater differences have accrued from the way the cultures understood and practised the two religions."[8] A short statistic overview might also help to outline the proportions of the issue and consequently its controversial character. In the Comedy there are about 600 characters who either speak out, are mentioned or referred to, explicitly or implicitly, and out of this number the half inhabits the three realms of the Other World. Although statistics cannot account for the themes and their significance in a literary work as the Comedy, this fact does, however, point at why the issue of Dante and Islam should be treated with caution: there are only five Muslims mentioned in the entire work, and they are placed in the Inferno. Furthermore, the work consists of over 14.000 lines and only less than 20 are committed to characterize the placement of the five Muslims: in the highest and less sinful circle of Hell, Limbo, the philosophers


Avicenna and Averroës and the Egyptian and Syrian sultan Saladin are placed (Inf. 4), and in the eighth and second most sinful circle of Hell the founder of Islam Mohammed and his son-in-law Ali are found (Inf. 28). Apart from these two instances Dante makes a few remarks about the crusades, the Muslims and their belief elsewhere in the Comedy, but the clearest picture of his attitude toward Islam is found in these two episodes. At one and the same time, the notion of Islam as both a pagan and a heretical sect is exposed. However, it is difficult to see the difference because Dante does not exhaust himself in doing so.

In order to understand the first instance it is necessary to characterize Dante's concept of Limbo. Among medieval thinkers the idea of Limbo was conceived as a place in the Other World between condemnation and salvation without a purgatorial and progressive dimension. Salvation was not a question of individual repentance as in the Purgatory, but depended solely of the mercy of God on the Day of Judgement. Generally it was seen as the place for non Christians who were important for the history of Christendom, such as biblical figures, and for those whose lack of Christian knowledge was not self-inflicted, as in the case of children who had died before baptism. In the Comedy Dante expands this idea by making it into maninly as place for distinguished classical figures, as for example Homer, Virgil, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and he states the reason for their presence as being due to their being born before Christ. Thus they are excused for not having received the Revelation. But this is not the case with Avicenna, Averroës and Saladin. Dante seems to contradict the general idea of Limbo and to undermine its theological basis. But the contradiction is merely due to the narrowness of Dante's horizon; it made it possible for him to operate with a different kind of redemptive system.

Dante knew that the Church and different important thinkers, such as St. Thomas, considered Averroistic thinking as dangerous for the reason among


others that Averroës had argued for the eternity of the world, the immortality as a collective affair, and the absence of the individual providence. The problem is obvious: the rejection of the immortality of the individual soul undermined the foundation of Christian orthodox theology in the West. However, in the twelfth century Averroistic philosophy was influential, and some of its aspects were incorporated in the thinking of the two great Parisian philosophers, Siger of Brabant (Par. 10: 136-38) and Boëthus de Dacia (of Denmark), who were both condemned in 1270's. But the fact that Aristotle is called "the Master of all who know" (Inf. 4: 131) and Averroës is mentioned because he wrote "the great commentary" to Aristotle (144), and the fact that the name of Avicenna turns up in the same line with two of the greatest authorities in the field of medical science from Antiquity, Hippocrates and Galen (143), show that when it came to the traditions of scientific knowledge, two distinguished Muslims should rather be placed among excusable pagans than among condemnable heretics. That both thinkers were Muslims was unimportant. Some Dante scholars have even argued that he did not know that they were Muslims. However, as in the case of the philosophers from Antiquity, it is certain that Dante places their intellectual achievements above questions of paganism or heresy because he is disputing conceptions within and not outside Christian thought, and both pagan and Muslim philosophers had contributed to the formation of these conceptions. Thus the instance in Limbo is an example of integration by exclusion. The idea of Limbo forms the pattern for their exclusion from Christian Revelation. But they are integrated in the history of Christendom because of their contribution to Christian epistemology.

In the case of Saladin his erroneous belief was also excusable, however, for a different and less complicated reason. Dante probably knew the reason for the proclamation of the Third Crusade: Saladin's conquest of Jerusalem in 1187. But by placing him in Limbo Dante makes one out of many accusations in the Comedy against the Christian clerical institutions. The


placement of Saladin is most likely built on a general assumption, spread out among Christians in the period after the crusade, that this Muslim warrior who successfully fought against Christians in the Holy Land in fact had sympathies with the Christian belief but was never baptized because he was misled by false information from Christian clergies.[9] The reason why Dante could connect Saladin to Christendom in this manner is that he believed that Islam was a Christian heretical sect. That this is the case is made clear in the episode with Mohammed and Ali among "schismatics and sowers of discord" in the Inferno. Instead of an integration by exclusion, this instance is an example of an exclusion by integration. Mohammed and Ali are excluded from Christian salvation because of heresy. But the fact that they are regarded as heritics integrates them in a Christian context. The thematic relation between Saladin's excusable sinfulness and the condemnation of Mohammed and Ali shows that Dante was incapable of schematizing a definable context in which to place the belief of the Muslims.

Contrary to the previous episode, where the three Muslims are only mentioned, the state of Mohammed's and Ali's souls is more thoroughly described (Inf. 28: 22-33), and it is the description that gives us an idea of Dante's attitude toward Islam as a heretical movement. Now two things need to be noticed about their punishment. First, Mohammed's body is split up in two from chin to bowels while Ali's head is split up in two from forehead to chin. The effect of their worldly doings as "sowers of discord" is physically apparent in their type of punishment. Second, Dante says that Mohammed is preceded by a weeping Ali. The reason for their sin is reflected in this detail. However, it can only be explained with reference to a medieval tradition that finds it clearest exponent in the abbot of Cluny Peter the Venerable who took the first initiative in Western Christendom to translate different parts of the Koran that were


interesting from a medieval Christian point of view. The translation was accomplished around 1143, and subsequently Peter continually rejected Mohammed's prophethood in his writings, as for example in the following manner: "Satan gave success to the error and sent the monk Sergius, a follower of the heretical Nestorius who had been expelled from the Church, across to those regions of Arabia, and joined the heretical monk with the pseudo-prophet [Mohammed]."[10]

According to Peter, through his prophethood Mohammed brought about a schism within the Christian Church, and Sergius was the mind behind it because he was the one who explained the sacred scriptures to Mohammed in accordance with the thinking of Nestorius. It is probably this idea that is contained in Mohammed's body being cleft in two as a symbol of how the body of the Church was split by his prophethood. And the fact that Ali is preceding Mohammed and only his head is visibly punished can be explained in terms of an idea that thought precedes action and thought is formed in the mind (the head). But Dante pictures a different setting than the one found in Peter the Venerable's writings. It is not Sergius but Ali whom Dante has placed beside Mohammed. According to Richard W. Southern, it is very likely that "Dante has made a very gross blunder ... It would seem that Dante has simply confused Ali with Sergius." For Southern this "blunder" shows Dante's ignorance and indifference to the facts of Islamic history.[11] To this I would add that it also exemplifies Dante's horizontal narrowness. Just as the whole of the European continent, geographically, was too wide a region to be essentially incorporated in Dante's existential context, so was the Islamic world, mentally as well as geographically, too unexplored and unrealized to be reproduced in any historically truthful manner by Dante and many others especially in medieval Western Europe. Nothing in the Comedy or elsewhere in his works indicates a


particular broadness in cultural outlook. In this sense Dante represents a continuation of a tradition that resulted in a distorted image of Islam. But the question is how Dante's relation to this tradition should be interpreted in a diachronic (historical) perspective and his individual concept incorporated in a general explanation of the making of the image.  

The Discourse of Orientalism in Dante In his famous book on Orientalism Edward Said makes some interesting remarks about, on the one hand, what historical cultural legacy is implicit in Dante's attitude toward Islam and, on the other hand, how the presence of Muslims in the Comedy contributed to an "insensitive schematization of the entire Orient" in the West. Said finds the earliest examples of this schematization in classical Greece, and he believes that Dante's Inferno illustrates "how strongly articulated were later representations building on the earlier ones, how inordinately careful their schematization, how dramatically effective their placing in Western imaginative geography." He interprets especially the condemnation of Mohammed and Ali as "an instance of the schematic, almost cosmological inevitability with which Islam and its designated representatives are creatures of Western geographical, historical, and above all, moral apprehension." Furthermore, he conclusively states that what Dante, among others, tried to do was "at one and the same time to characterize the Orient as alien and to incorporate it schematically on a theatrical stage whose audience, manager, and actors are for Europe, and only for Europe."[12] Thus Dante's placement of Muslims in the Inferno becomes an example of a fundamental idea from Antiquity to modern times, and Dante's individual concept is used in order to establish a diachronic perspective in which to place an interpretation of a generality in European history: Dante's ignorance and


indifference are explicitly characterized as an unavoidable and almost natural cultural heritage.

The conclusions Said draws from the two episodes in the Comedy are obviously not consistent with my interpretation of Dante's concept of Europe and its cultural implications. It is true that Dante believed that the Muslims represented a major threat, but not necessarily to Europe as a whole. He only states that they were the cause of "the misery of Italy" (Epistola V, 2), not of Europe, which was still merely a geographic term: by referring to Italy he only uses the broadest geographic term for his own existential context in order to concrete the extension of the misery. In the Comedy the subject is the whole world as God's creation and by no means Dante's own regional placement in this whole or how this placement was opposed to other regional entities. In Dante we do not find any conscious distinction between the Self in terms of Christendom and the Other in terms of Islam, which historically has been one of the main constituting elements in the division between Europe and the West as Here and the Orient as There. Hence the aspects of "eurocentrism" Said finds in Dante are only due to his horizontal narrowness by which geographically bound conflicts and disputable conceptions were given an universal significance. Dante's concept of Europe only reflects an idea of Europe on a level of unconsious potentialities. But Said transforms his concept into a reality of conscious cultural divisions, since he does not operate with a distinction between the diachronic perspective by which he interprets Dante's concept, and the synchronic perspective in which the concept is stated.

Thus, when Said characterizes the presentation of Muslims in the Comedy as a strong, inordinately careful and dramatically effective articulation of a Western tradition of prejudices with origins in Antiquity, he not only, almost schematically, exagerates Dante's contribution to the insentive schematization, but he minimizes, and by minimizing he also disrupts, the hermeneutics of medieval identity in a European context. Since Dante's


individual concept is presented as a generality, thorugh Dante the medieval period is made more modern European or Western than his concept expresses in a synchronic perspective. This disruption exemplifies the problem concerning the use of medieval references in discussions on modern European or Western issues. If we are to understand the hermeneutics of the Middle Ages in a European context, it is necessary to enter into the subjectivity of the individual medieval source, that is, to establish a synchronic perspective, in order to outline the generalities to be contrasted in a historical (diachronic) perspective. Otherwise, if the individual versus the general is not emphasized, modern Europe and the West can easily be interpreted as essentially more medieval in cultural outlook than normally assumed. The similarities need only to be stressed at the expense of the differences.

Summary: The purpose of the article is to create a methodological framework for approaching the question to what extent an individual medieval concept of Europe, in this case the one found in the works of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), can be used in discussions on contemporary European issues. With reference to the structural and temporal significance of the notion of the hermeneutic circle, shortly exemplified on the basis of two studies by Robert Bartlett on European culture and identity in the Middle Ages, the article aims at two things: an examination of 1) how Dante defined the geography of his contemporary Europe and what constituted his exiential identity, and 2) how he confronted what was outside his existential horizon, in this case the Islamic world. This examination prepares a critique of the way in which Edward Said in his book Orientalism (1978) makes Dante into a medieval exponent of a semi-conscious Western schematization of the Orient as alien since Antiquity.

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Name: Jesper Hede

Born: 1967

M.A./Cand. Mag. 1996, University of Copenhagen

Major subject: Italian language, history and literature

Minor subject: Medieval History

Since February 1998 Ph.d. Student in "European Studies" at Centre for Cultural Research, University of Aarhus

Ph.d. project on Dante's theological conceptions as expressed in La Divina Commedia. A research on Dante's notion of the Seven Deadly Sins and the Three Theological Virtues as the structuring elements of the Other World in La Divina Commedia.

Mentor: Uffe østergård, Centre for Cultural Research, AU

Assistant mentor: Otto Sten Due, Dept. of Classical Studies, AU

External mentor: Thomas K. Seung, Dept. of Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin


[1] Robert Bartlett: The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950-1350, London, 1994 (1993), pp. 291, 313.

[2] Robert Bartlett: "Patterns of Unity and Diversity in Medieval Europe", in The Birth of Identities. Denmark and Europe in the Middle Ages, edited by Brian Patrick McGuire, Copenhagen, 1996, p. 36.

[3] Robert Bartlett: The Making of Europe, p. 313.

[4] Norman Daniel: The Arabs and Medieval Europe, London 1975, p. 10.

[5] Thomas K. Seung: Semiotics and Thematics in Hermeneutics, New York, 1982, p. 192.

[6] A. C. Charity: Events and their Afterlife, Cambridge, 1987 (1966), p. 167-68.

[7] Thomas K. Seung: "The Metaphysics of the Commedia", in The Divine Comedy and the Encyclopedia of Arts and Science, edited by Giuseppe C. Di Scipio and Aldo Scaglione, Philedelphia, 1988, p. 218.

[8] Norman Daniel: The Arabs and Medieval Europe, p. 10.

[9] Richard W. Southern: "Dante and Islam", in Relations between the East and the West in the Middle Ages, edited by Derek Baker, Edinburg, 1973, p. 136.

[10] James Kritzeck: Peter the Venerable and Islam, Princeton, 1964, p. 129.

[11] Richard W. Southern: "Dante and Islam", p. 138.

[12] Edward Said: Orientalism, Harmondsworth, 1985 (1978), pp. 68, 69, 71-72.

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