This essay is to accompany Between Fortune and Providence: Astrology and the Universe in Dante’s Divine Comedy. What follows is the overview and timeline I wish I had when I first started reading the Divine Comedy. Many commentaries of the Divine Comedy give background historical information, usually consisting of a general introduction and brief explanations when specific characters and events come up within the poem. Here I will proceed sequentially, beginning centuries before Dante’s birth and concluding in the year of his death. When I first mention a historical person whose character appears in the Divine Comedy, the name will be in bold, followed by page references from Between Fortune and Providence. Because this section gives an overview specific to the Divine Comedy, Italy and the city-states of northern Italy, especially Florence, is our focus.
This essay is partly organized according to the modern astrological practice that uses cycles of the modern planets Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. When relevant, we will look at outer planet configurations when they form conjunctions, opening squares, oppositions, and closing squares that correspond to New, First Quarter, and Full, and Third Quarter Moons. Since many readers of Between Fortune and Providence are astrologers or are interested in modern astrology, this will be useful for them. Those who are not astrologers can pass over this material.
Here’s a preliminary summary of some the interacting themes of Church, politics, and economics that provide some background for the Divine Comedy. Religion: Understanding the medieval Church takes a special leap of the imagination. The Church had a dominant role in organizing and giving cohesiveness to Europe over a very long time. Yet the Church had its ups and downs, politically and spiritually. Because of its wealth and political power, the Church was also vulnerable to being abducted by strong secular rulers, and this is the case throughout the medieval era. In this essay we first encounter the Church as largely controlled by secular authorities, but reform movements were afoot that would help give it greater independence and spiritual authority over time. As the Church grew stronger, however, it would become more empire than religion and at times was unbelievably worldly.
Over the centuries the papacy sometimes inaugurated some attempts to reform the Church. There were also reform movements from the monastic side. Other Church reform2 movements, like the orders of the Franciscans and Dominicans, began with charismatic leaders. There were also some failed attempts that have come down to us as “heresies.” Two centuries after Dante’s death, one heretical preacher, Martin Luther, would help launch the Protestant Reformation.
Politics: In Dante’s lifetime, the Italian peninsula was comprised of many autonomous and economically diverse regions. In the south were the vulnerable but cosmopolitan kingdoms of Sicily and Naples. The central region was governed by the Pope. In the wealthier and more urbanized north, including Florence, there were many independent and prosperous city-states that were frequently at war with each other and with the larger political entities around them. Beginning around the time of Dante’s birth, the “Holy Roman Empire” was a loose confederation of warring German princes and their territories that were governed by an Emperor – at least in theory. In the centuries before Dante, the Holy Roman Empire was more dominant in Italian affairs.
Just before and during the poet’s lifetime, however, the French monarchy had become a major player in European affairs. Dante resented this greatly. He was nostalgic for a renewed Roman Empire, but the reality was the perpetually disappointing contemporary “Holy Roman Empire.” Dante did not know that Europe’s future would favor not empires but nations like France, England, and Spain.
Economics: The monetary and banking systems of Dante’s world would be more familiar to us than its religious and political institutions. Unlike the more rural and feudal Europe to its north and west, northern Italy contained commercial and banking institutions similar to ours. Italy benefited from its proximity to major trade routes and, with the Crusades, more traffic that moved back and forth across the Mediterranean. Toward Dante’s lifetime, Florence was a prosperous banking center and was also known for its textile industry. Dante loathed the commercialization of Florence and northern Italy in general. Yet this commercial activity would help bankroll Italy’s greatest eras in the centuries to come. In short, Dante’s conceptions of the flow of history into the future turned out to be completely wrong. He longed for a renewal of times that would never return.