We in the twentieth century would be much more hard-pressedto define evil than would people of either Chaucer’s or Dante’stime.
Medieval Christians would have a source for it — Satan –and if could easily devise a series of ecclesiastical checkliststo test its presence and its power. In our secular world, evilhas come down to something that hurts people for no explicablereason: the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, theburning of black churches in the South. We have taken evil out ofthe hands of Satan, and placed it in the hands of man. In doingso, we have made it less absolute, and in many ways less real.Order now
Nonetheless, it must be recognized that in earlier timesevil was not only real but palpable. This paper will look at evilas it is portrayed in two different works — Dante’s DivineComedy, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales — and analyze what thenature of evil meant to each of these authors. The Divine Comedy is an epic poem in which the author,Dante, takes a visionary journey through Hell, Purgatory, andParadise. The purpose of Dante’s visit to Hell is to learn aboutthe true nature of evil. He is guided in this journey by theghost of the Roman classical poet Virgil, who, as wise in theways of the spirit as he may be, cannot go to Heaven because heis not a Christian.
Virgil’s experience in the underworld,however, make him an authority on its structure, and he is morethan willing to share his knowledge with Dante in order thatDante might return to life and share his revelations with others. In Hell Dante is presented with insight into the nature ofevil, which, he is told, has to be seen and experienced to beunderstood. At any rate, only after having looked the Devil inthe face and seen for himself the horror, the stupidity, and theself-destructiveness of Hell, is Dante ready to move out of theInferno and back up toward the light of God’s love. Dante conceived of Hell as a cone-shaped hole, terraced intoseven concentric “rings”.
The uppermost level, Limbus, actuallyis not a Hell at all, but merely an abode for good people borninto the culture of Christianity but who themselves had neverbeen baptized, as well as those born before the time of Christ. Below Limbus, however, the rings of Hell yawn deeper and deeper,and the torments grow more severe, ending at the bottom with afrozen lake which is the abode of Satan himself. Each differenttype of sin merits its own ring.The unfortunate inhabitants ofeach ring and pouch and section of Hell receive a different