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 (1417–1476) 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. 1435–60). 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 (1536–1541).

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)!

Episode 7: Love and Hell


What is the purpose of sin, and why is it allowed? Why does Hell exist? When people go to Hell, do they stay there forever, and is there any way of getting them out? Em and Jesse take a look at the Medieval personification of God’s love and how several major female mystics tackled these questions, and then dive into Dante’s vision of Hell in The Inferno.

Annotations and Corrections

1/ Minne: love personified. [Minne is also German/Germanic and is part of the medieval courtly love tradition (“Lady Love”). The women in this episode frequently make use of the conventions of courtly love–for example, portraying Christ as a knight. However, Minne also extends far, far beyond courtly love in the philosophies of affective piety described in this episode. Minne becomes a pillar of these women’s philosophies, and consequently it takes more than one episode to describe Minne fully. But we tried to provide a start! I specify Dutch here because of Hadewijch, who wrote in Middle Dutch.–Jesse]

2/ Hadewijch of Brabent or Antwerp. If you’re really interested in more on her philosophy, check out episode 237 of the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast.

Jesse: Hadewijch lived in the first half of the thirteenth century presumably (based on her writings in the Brabant region). Her Wikipedia article is here. For more on Hadewijch and Minne, also see McGinn, The Flowering of Mysticism, pp. 199–222.

3/ [5:55] For reference, the printing press was invented in the West around 1440. (It was invented in China about 900 years earlier, in 593.)

4/ Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms. We should definitely talk about this as soon as we finish this series on mysticism and Hell. Also, this was one of my grad school readings, thanks.–Em

5/ We talk a bit in this episode and in several others about the change from writing in Latin to writing in “the Vernacular”–whatever the local language was. Dante and Chaucer are two early examples in their respective languages, but I’m not certain exactly when it became a “thing.” Certainly I think it must have started as education moved out of monasteries and into universities in the 12th century. [This seems like part of a future episode! I love the question of the vernacular. Manuscripts, writing, and illumination might be a future episode as well.–Jesse]

Booker T. Washington is an example of someone who taught himself to read English.

6/ The Crusader Bible in our site header is actually in Latin, Persian, and Judeo-Persian (Persian written in Hebrew characters). See the Citations tab for links to more info on it!

7/ Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179)–see Episode 6 beginning around 34:00 and notes 17 and 23.

8/ Jesse: Poem 16 (this is a short excerpt, the full poem is pp. 168–171) in Hadewijch: The Complete Works, introduced and translated by Mother Columba Hart O.S.B. This is part of a series I mention frequently, The Classics of Western Spirituality, published by Paulist Press.

9/ Arma Christi: Episode 5, note 24.

10/ Phaedrus: I remember it as one of the more interesting of the Platonic dialogues, primarily because the main character in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance refers to himself as “Phaedrus,” and also because Socrates really seems to be low-key trying to seduce the guy he’s interviewing.

Symposium: Probably the second-most famous of Plato’s dialogues (The Republic is the most famous). Here is Neal Patrick Harris singing the song “Origin of Love,” which is the story Jesse is referring to. (Wikipedia describes John Cameron Mitchell as “deeply Roman Catholic,” so there’s a chance he knew about Hadewijch. He’s also a former member of the Northwestern Theatre Mafia.)

Gnosis: Knowledge. See also Gnosticism. The character of Tommy Gnosis in Hedwig is very purposefully named.

11/ South Park: I believe this is the episode under discussion. [Yes!! Say what you will, South Park can be brilliant. This episode really illustrates the “unpayable debt” quite well. Also, it’s Kyle (the Jewish character) who buys the unlimited credit card of course, NOT Stan. Kyle essentially lives out a parallel of the Passion throughout the episode. Cartman is obviously Judas.–Jesse]

12/ Apophatic mysticism: Here’s the Wikipedia article, but really you should check out the books on Marguerite Porete. See note 15 below.–Jesse

13/ Ted Chiang, “Hell Is the Absence of God,” in Your Life and Others, Tor, 2002. It feels like Chiang has written stories about a lot of what we talk about.

14/ Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit. I don’t have a preferred translation or anything, but here’s the Wikipedia page for a summary.

15/ Marguerite Porete: History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps did an episode on her, too. Interesting fact, from the 12th century on, Middle Ages glass mirrors would have been made by blowing a sphere of glass, flattening it, and then cutting it to the desired shape and backing it with steel or silver. Prior to that, mirrors were usually just polished metal (and probably after that, too–glass mirrors were very expensive).

Jesse: Marguerite Porete (d. 1 June 1310). Here is her Wikipedia page. Aside from Porete’s own book The Mirror of Simple Souls, also see McGinn, The Flowering of Mysticism, pp. 244–265; Sean Field, The Beguine, the Angel, and the Inquisitor; Amy Hollywood, The Soul as Virgin Wife; and John van Engen “Marguerite (Porete) of Hainault and the Medieval Low Countries” in Marguerite Porete et le Miroir des Simples Ames: Perspectives Historiques, Philosophiques et Littéraires, edited by Sean L. Field, Robert E. Lerner, and Sylvain Piron, (Vrin: Paris, 2013), pp. 25–68.

16/ Meister Eckhart. As I mentioned above, universities really kicked off in the late 12th/early 13th centuries, and Meister Eckhart, who studied at both the universities in Cologne and in Paris, was a beneficiary of these, earning a Master of Theology in Paris in 1302.

Jesse: Meister Eckhart c.1260–c.1328). John of Ruusbroec (1293/94–1381).

17/ [31:20] “…you could match up specific passages with the trial transcripts…” The Inquisition kept very good records.

Jesse: In 1946, Romana Guarnieri identified Marguerite Porete as the previously unnamed beguine author of the Mirror. This dovetails nicely with Episode 6 note 29 on Hope Emily Allen’s identification of Margery Kempe’s Book. There was work done on the Mirror prior to 1946 (in the early 20th century) as the book of an unknown mystic, and this work was also done by excellent female scholars, Evelyn Underhill and Clare Kirchberger (although they attributed the work to a male author, probably based on the fact that the translator of the Middle English manuscript refers to the author as “he”). Women recognizing and writing about women seems like a good topic for the future. (Also, it’s important!)

Guarnieri found a Latin text of the Mirror in the Vatican, thereby proving that all the copies of the condemned text had not been destroyed despite the fact that they were supposed to have been destroyed (along with the condemned Porete herself). Instead, the Mirror exists in multiple translations–“no fewer than six versions in four languages with thirteen manuscripts, making it among the more widely disseminated of the vernacular mystical texts of the Middle Ages” (McGinn, Flowering, p. 246). The languages are Middle English, Latin, Middle French, and Medieval Italian. The original Old French does not seem to have survived (or just hasn’t been discovered yet!).

Guarnieri “based her claim [of Porete’s authorship] on the near identity between the three condemned passages cited in the trial documents and the chronicle of Nangis and portions of the Mirror” (Hollywood, Acute Melancholia and Other Essays, p. 137).

Guarnieri published her discovery in “Lo Specchio delle anime semplici e Margherita Poirette,” in L’Osservatore Romano, 16 June 1946. It’s reprinted in Guarnieri, “Il movimento del Libero Spirito,” Archivio Italiano per la storia della pietà, Vol. 4 (1965), pp. 661–63. For more on Marguerite Porete as the author of the Mirror, see Sean Field, Robert Lerner, and Sylvain Piron “A return to the evidence for Marguerite Porete’s authorship of the Mirror of Simple Souls” in Journal of Medieval History, 43.2 (March 2017), pp. 153–173.

18/ Jesse: Council of Vienne (1311–12). I’m quoting p. viii from the Foreword by Kent Emery, Jr. of the Colledge, Marler, Grant translation published by University of Notre Dame Press.

McGinn, Flowering, chapter 5! The specific page numbers are cited above a lot.

19/ In the intervening time, it seems both Eckhart and Porete have been rehabilitated with the Church–or at least, The Mirror of Simple Souls was published by Burns Oates and Washbourne, LTD (publisher to the Holy See) with nihil obstat (meaning “nothing objectionable”) and imprimatur (meaning it was authorized by the Church).

20/ Julian of Norwich. See episode 5 note 3 and below note 22.

21/ [43:00] It has often been observed, mostly by writers of children’s stories, that children have a remarkable ability to accept punishment to bad people as appropriate and not seem especially frightened by it. However, there are plenty of adults today with traumatic memories of watching when Bambi’s mom gets shot or the evil queen comes after Snow White who serve as evidence that a lot of what kids are responding/not responding to is the presentation rather than (exclusively) the content. When you read a kid a Grimm Brothers story at bedtime, you’re probably not acting it out like you were C3PO telling the Ewoks about Darth Vader, while on the other hand movies make everything more vivid and dramatic. The reason kids are okay with Henry the train getting walled up in a tunnel is that it’s not presented as a terrible thing to have happen but as an appropriate punishment for someone who is being naughty. It’s only as adults that we become aware of the larger context (i.e. being bricked up in a tunnel forever is terrifying) and understand that what’s being presented is often quite horrible. On the other hand, my child is terrified of Kermit the Frog right now, so clearly presentation isn’t everything.–Em [Kermit is definitively the best.–Jesse]

22/ “Sin is necessary”: I was told a long time ago about a theory that the fall of man (i.e., original sin) was necessary, possibly because if people never had free will to choose between sinning and not sinning (between good and evil), salvation would be meaningless. But Google is not bringing this theory up, so maybe I made it up in my head? –Em

Jesse: No, no this is absolutely true. The “felix culpa” or “fortunate fall” refers to the idea that Adam’s sin/fall actually made things better for humanity. One common explanation is that without sin Jesus would not have been needed to save humanity, which would deprive humanity of the full extent of God’s love. This theme is discussed around Milton a lot.

However, Julian does not seem to be aiming at the idea of “felix culpa.” Goodness of any kind, for Julian, cannot come out of sin (which exists outside God’s Love and goodness). In the episode, I’m quoting from the Paulist Press translation of Julian’s Showings by Colledge and Walsh, pp. 224–225 and 233. The original is in the Watson and Jenkins edition, pp. 207 and 209; 221 and 223.

23/ Jesse: The Book of Margery Kemp. and the British Library page. I recommend the Norton Critical translation by Lynn Staley. See pp. 16–17 on banking credit, p. 38 on Kempe saving people with her tears, and p. 117 on Kempe’s worries about people being damned. The original is edited by Barry Windeatt. See pp. 79–81, 136, and 302–303.

24/ Lollards: followers of John Wycliffe. See episode 6, note 9.

25/ Dante. Wrote some books. We’ll talk more about him next time. Jesse has promised to transcribe the Italian of the gate text, so this is a stub for her to do that.

Jesse: “I shall the effect of this good lesson keep
As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven
Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede.” (Ophelia to Laertes in Hamlet, I.iii).

The inscription over the gate of Hell opens the third canto of the Inferno. My English translations of Dante are always John Ciardi’s translation.

Italian is from here.

I am the way into the city of woe,
I am the way to a forsaken people,
I am the way into eternal sorrow.

Sacred justice moved my architect,
I was raised here by divine omnipotence,
Primordial love and ultimate intellect.

Only those elements time cannot wear
Were made before me, and beyond time I stand.
Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

Per me si va nella città dolente,
per me si va nell’etterno dolore,
per me si va tra la perduta gente.

Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore:
fecemi la divina potestate,
la somma sapienza e ‘l primo amore.

Dinanzi a me non fur cose create
se non eterne, ed io eterna duro:
lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate.

26/ Jesse: I can’t believe I got this slightly wrong (and also didn’t trust my instincts enough to say it was Blake, because who else would it be?): “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when he wrote of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it” (William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).