Dante’s Inferno: Canto 28 Retelling — The Schismatics

Chapter 28: The Schismatics

And now Dante and Virgil saw a scene of bloodshed. Imagine the results of many bloody battles with a great number of casualties displaying the horrifying wounds of war: limbs cut off and torsos slit up the middle, and much blood flowing.

One such bloody battle was the Battle of Cannae. During the Second Punic War, the Carthaginian general Hannibal crossed the Alps — with war elephants! — and invaded Italy. He had much early success in the war, although the Romans eventually won. One of Hannibal’s greatest successes was at the Battle of Cannae. So many Roman soldiers were killed that the Roman historian Livy related that the Carthaginian soldiers gathered three bushels of gold rings from the fingers of the dead Roman soldiers.

Such blood and carnage as could be seen at Cannae — and other battles — could be seen in the ninth bolgia of Circle 8 of the Inferno. Here the schismatics — the sowers of discord — were punished.

A schism is a break, Virgil thought. It is especially a break within a church, as in the future will occur between Catholics and Protestants, or as is the case now between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, or between Islam and Christianity. However, a schism can also occur in politics, as when rival, hate-filled political parties are formed, or within families, as when a son and a father hate each other. In the ninth bolgia, the sowers of religious discord, of political discord, and of familial discord are punished.

Dante and Virgil saw a sinner whose body was split open from his chin to his anus. His guts had spilled out, and Dante and Virgil could see his heart and his stomach and his intestines.

The sinner looked at Dante, opened up his chest, and said, “Look at how I am punished! I am Mahomet, and in front of me is Ali, who weeps. He is split from his chin to the top of the head. The sinners you see here are the schismatics. We walk this Circle, and a devil wielding a sword wounds us. By the time we have completed a round of the Circle, we are healed and the devil wounds us again. Because we caused divisions when we were alive, the devil causes divisions in us now that we are dead.”

Muhammad and Ali, the founders of Islam, caused a schism within the Christian Church by having Islam break away from Christianity, Dante thought. Because of this, these two schismatics are punished by being slit with a sword wielded by a devil.

Muhammad then asked Dante, “But who are you, and what is your story?”

Virgil answered for Dante, “He is not dead yet, and he has not been sentenced to this bolgia for sins committed in the Land of the Living. I am dead, and I am his guide. My purpose is to educate him by escorting him throughout the Inferno.”

Over 100 sinners in the ninth pocket stopped to look at Dante when they heard that he was still alive.

Muhammad said to Dante, “Since you are still alive, when you return to the Land of the Living, tell Fra Dolcino to stock up on food, or else he will lose his struggle and join me here in the Inferno.”

Fra Dolcino is a heretic who in 1307 will be burned at the stake, Virgil thought. Pope Clement V will oppose him, and Fra Dolcino will hide out in some hills near Novaro. He and his followers will run out of food, and the forces of the Pope will be able to capture him and burn him at the stake.

Another sinner with an ear and his nose cut off, and with his throat cut, said to Dante, “I have seen you when I was alive, unless I am deceived by your resemblance to someone else. If you return to the Land of the Living, remember Pier da Medicina, and tell Messer Guido and Angiolello that they will drown when they are tied in a sack and thrown into the water near Cattolica. A tyrant will murder them.”

Dante replied, “If you want me to carry your message back to the Land of the Living, tell me who is the sinner beside you.”

Pier da Medicina grabbed the jaws of the sinner beside him and opened them, revealing that the sinner’s tongue had been cut out. “This sinner is Curio, whose tongue is cut out each time he completes a journey around the Circle. Curio urged Julius Caesar — who is in Limbo — to cross the Rubicon River, thus starting civil war among the Romans. When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River, he said, ‘Thus the die is cast,’ meaning that there was no turning back now, as he had disobeyed the orders of the Roman Senate.”

Another sinner then showed Dante that his hands had been cut off. He raised the stumps of his blood-dripping arms in the air and said, “I am Mosca, who started the split of Florentines into rival Ghibelline and Guelf factions. Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti was engaged to be married to the daughter of Lambertuccio degli Amidei, but when a better offer came along — Aldruda, a member of the Donati family, offered him her daughter to be his bride — he took it. Although Aldruda offered to pay the expenses of the broken engagement, this was a major insult to my family, the family of the jilted bride, and I advised that Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti be killed. After he was killed, the two factions of the Guelfs and the Ghibellines began.”

“May all of your family be punished for the evil you have created,” Dante, a victim of the schism between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, said.

Good work, Dante, Virgil thought. The main thing for you to learn here in this pocket is to recognize the evil of extreme factionalism, and in your reply to Mosca you have shown that you have learned that.

Dante saw one more thing, a thing so incredible that he wondered whether anyone would believe it. He saw a man whose head had been cut off — the body was carrying the head like a lantern.

The sinner held up his severed head, and the severed head said, “I am Bertran de Born, and in the 12th century I urged Prince Henry of England to rebel against his father, who was King Henry II. Thus, I urged the son of a family to rebel against its head, and so my head is cut off each time I complete a journey around the Circle. My punishment is the perfect contrapasso.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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