Episode 8: Hell and Damnation


Come with us into Hell. We’ll accompany Dante and Virgil as they pass through the nine circles and out into purgatory and heaven. On the way, we’ll chat about Margery Kemp and Julian of Norwich, Hellboy, D&D, Giotto’s Scrovengi Chapel, and the tendency of ogliarchs to use philanthropy to try and make people like them.

Notes and Annotations

1/ Minne/affective piety: see episode 7, note 1.

2/ Hildegard: see episode 6, notes 17 and 23.

Marguerite Porete: see episode 7, notes 15 and 17.

3/ Jesse: Julian of Norwich: see episode 5, note 3 and episode 7, note 22. Jesus tells Julian that “Sin is necessary, but all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well” and “What is impossible to you is not impossible to me” (225, 233). This translation is from the Paulist Press translation of Julian’s Showings, translated by Colledge and Walsh. The original is in the Watson and Jenkins edition, pp. 209, 223.

4/ Jesse: Margery Kemp: see episode 6, note 29 and episode 7, note 23. Margery Kempe wrote one of the first (if not the first) autobiographies in English: The Book of Margery Kemp. Also see the British Library page. I recommend the Norton Critical translation by Lynn Staley, which I’m quoting in this episode (p. 117). The original is edited by Barry Windeatt (p. 303 for the quotes in this episode).

5/ Dante: Writer, failed politician, egoist. [“Failed politician” is a little unfair–he’s probably a better person for having been on the side that got exiled. I think he’d agree though–and with “egoist” too. –Jesse]

7/ For the terminally curious, here is the D&D Chick tract. I like that this comic includes two young women in the D&D group and…apparently the DM is some older woman? Anyway, it’s extremely unrealistic that the DM would just kill off a character like that. It’s very rude. Serious D&D players can hang onto their characters for years, and killing off a character permanently is a pretty intense situation. Also I have never been invited to join a coven devoted to ANY deity after participating in D&D, which honestly is a little disappointing.

Interesting and relevant side story, I’ve also been involved in the creation of a D&D adventure that started in limbo and worked its way through Dante’s Inferno. [So awesome! I want in on that adventure.–Jesse]

Jesse: In Medieval Crossover, Barbara Newman points out that “for us, the secular is the normative, unmarked default category, while the sacred is the marked, asymmetrical Other. In the Middle Ages it was the reverse” (viii). She goes on to comment that “the secular had to establish a niche” within the sacred paradigm that framed medieval society (viii). Barbara Newman, Medieval Crossover: Reading the Secular against the Sacred (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013)

8/ I think Jesse had read the Hellboy pancakes comic because I bought the collection that included it while I was staying with her in Manhattan one weekend, and true to form she read the whole thing before I flew out. [Yes that’s right!! I actually hadn’t read that one before, probably because it’s not based on . . . uh . . . myth/folklore. Now I own the complete Hellboy in nice editions, and I have a small figurine of young Hellboy with his pancakes. The figurine is marooned in my office on campus, and I can’t get back in the building without special arrangements because of quarantine, which is why I can’t include a picture of it sitting on my desk. When it comes to Hellboy, the Mignola illustrated ones are the best, but they’re all amazing, and the stand-alone short stories are all phenomenal. Mignola spoke at VCU last year, and it was magical.–Jesse]

9/ Jesse: Here is the Isaac Bashevis Singer book, The Power of Light: Eight Stories for Hanukkah (not the miracle of light, oops–it’s been a while!).

Jean Gerson: see episode 6, notes 25 and 27 and 33.

John Ciardi, The Inferno. Here is the collected translation.

For more on the famous inscription over the gate of Hell (and the complete translation and original text) see episode 7, note 25.

10/ [27:15] “Some [popes] . . . are much more bent on conquest and territory.” For those unfamiliar with the history of the Catholic Church, during this period the Pope had control not just of tiny Vatican City, but also a much larger swath of territory called the Papal States. This YouTube video is a good explanation of the origins of Vatican City.

11/ Interestingly (or not), Guelph is now the name of a suburb of Toronto.

12/ Purgatory, canto 6. I had no idea that there was ANY basis in reality of Romeo and Juliet. [The Montecchi and the Cappelletti–known to us as the Montagues and the Capulets–were apparently two factions in the political feuding of time.–Jesse]

13/ Sleeping and mortality: See episode 3, note 27.

Jesse: The beasts are a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf (taken from Jeremiah 5:6). They symbolize (probably but not necessarily in this order) malice and fraud, violence and ambition, and incontinence (i.e., lack of self-restraint–sins like avarice, gluttony, and lust).

14/ On the dark lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets: As the local nerd, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention there’s an episode of Doctor Who (new series) in which it’s implied that the Doctor’s companion Martha Jones is the dark lady.

15/ Re names: is this related to the choice of “Beatrice” as a character in Much Ado About Nothing? [Probably! It becomes a famous Italian name because of Dante.–Jesse]

16/ “We know nothing about what Dante’s marriage was like . . . they had kids.” Crucially, they had kids before he started writing Inferno. Also, interestingly, his daughter took the name “Sister Beatrice” when she became a nun. [Yes, which I think is a positive sign that means Dante was a good dad?–Jesse]

Jesse: We’ll have an episode on the vernacular at some point, but in the meantime check out episode 4 note 16 for St Francis’s vernacular poetry.

17/ Jesse: Not the Georgics! The moment occurs in Virgil’s Eclogues (specifically Eclogue 4). Here is the Wikipedia page about it!

18/ List of trips to the underworld: see episode 3, note 32 (and corresponding discussion in episode).

Jesse: Here’s Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld (Sumerian text recorded c. 1750 BCE).

I should have said that Virgil was buried in Naples. His tomb is still there, but his remains seem to have disappeared. Dante is buried in Ravenna. He’s never left, but he’s had a hectic afterlife (mostly to prevent stealing him–no wonder Virgil disappeared!). Check it out!

19/ [41:24ish] Elijah is carried up to heaven in a fiery chariot in 2 Kings 2:11. And at the end of that chapter, Elisha commands two bears to tear apart a bunch of kids who make fun of him for being bald. So. Interesting section of the bible overall, that. [Jews frequently believe that Elijah bodily entered heaven–still alive–but Christians frequently do not, because of the importance that Jesus was first and that Mary is the only other so assumed into Heaven. By this reasoning, Elijah was carried away but not directly into heaven. Elijah is worthy of a whole episode, so I kind of hurried on by him. Sorry Elijah!–Jesse]

Jesse: Belief in Mary’s Assumption arises fairly early in the Middle Ages but isn’t officially celebrated until the 8th century and isn’t dogmatically defined until 1950 (by Pope Pius XII). Also see The Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption by Stephen Shoemaker.

20/ River Lethe. There’s also apparently a river in Alaska called the Lethe.

21/ Jesse: Here’s a great series of Dante maps. Here is the site’s direct link to all three of Dante’s worlds combined. Notice that half the world is land and half (where Mount Purgatory is) is covered in water. Dante takes this from classical mythology, which at least as far back as Homer viewed the world as surrounded by ocean.

The mystic or celestial rose (like rose windows in a cathedral) is the final level of Paradise before God. The flowering rose is a symbol of divine love and light, while the tiered petals reflect the hierarchies of heaven. See this link.

More Dante maps.

22/ Saturn is the outermost planet that was known at the time; Uranus had been observed possibly as far back as 128 BCE but wasn’t identified as a planet until 1781.

23/ “They thought the stars were fixed . . . in an orbit, like the planets.” Ted Chiang also wrote a short story about this: “Omphalos,” from Exhalation. [Clarification–this all works a lot like electron shells, except that the Middle Ages didn’t know about electrons. The Middle Ages envisioned the universe as a nesting doll, but with spheres. The Earth is in the center, and it is enclosed by numerous (increasingly large) spheres. The planets were thought to be able to move in their individual spheres like electrons in an electron shell, but the stars were all thought to be fixed in one single sphere that moved as a whole (like sparkles on a twirling Christmas ornament). It’s easy to demonstrate and draw but hard to explain in words!–Jesse]

24/ Jesse: Catherine of Cleves (1417ā€“1476) is most famous for her Book of Hours (from Utrecht, ca. 1440). Books of Hours were personal prayer books (frequently divided by days of the week) and medieval bestsellers. Catherine’s Book of Hours was illuminated by one of the greatest Dutch masters of the time, known to us only as the Master of Catherine of Cleves (active ca. 1435ā€“60). Here is the Morgan Library’s homepage on the book.

Monday was devoted to the Hours of the Dead (their pains supposedly ceased on Sunday but were renewed on Monday). The opening page has a man dying (with a lot of drama around him!), and there are souls in the mouth of Purgatory on the page opposite him (because he hopes to go to Purgatory). Yes, this is technically a “Purgatorymouth” not a Hellmouth, but hey. Check out the full description and see the image here.

Next up, two more images from the Monday Hours of the Dead: an angel feeding the souls in the Purgatorymouth (a bit of hope brought to these souls presumably due to the person praying these Hours on their behalf), and finally an angel leading them out of the Purgatorymouth (again, possibly due to the person who is so tearfully and sincerely praying the Hours on their behalf).

This AMAZING triple Hellmouth (Do you see the mouth in the red of the middle mouth?) is from the Office of the Dead, which was prayed to free friends and relatives from Purgatory. That being said, this image of Hell was a reminder of what happened when people went beyond redemption. The Office of the Dead does them no good.

Michalangelo’s Last Judgment (1536ā€“1541).

Giotto’s Last Judgment in the Scrovegni or Arena Chapel (c.1305).

25/ I think David Koch also has a fountain in front of the Met. Super weird; really threw me the first time I was in NYC.

26/ Chester Mystery Plays

Chester Harrowing (original text)

27/ N-Town Plays

N-Town Harrowing (Middle English text: part 1; part 2)

28/ Gehenna

29/ Ultramarine blue: Seriously, look at the chapel (see note 24 above). It is gorgeous. But this is like in modern terms putting gold or platinum on every surface of your private jet. Ultramarine blue is made from lapis lazuli, which was only mined in one area in Afghanistan.

Jesse: Chartres blue is the equivalent for stained glass windows. There’s a myth that we don’t know how to make it anymore, but really it’s just that we can’t necessarily recreate it exactly the way the medieval glassmakers made it (or, more specifically, we can’t be sure that we’re recreating it the same way they did–medieval recipes and instructions can be difficult to follow). Check out the Virgin window (the Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere)!