Evil in Dante and Chaucer We in the twentieth century would be much more hard-pressed to define evil than would people of either Chaucer’s or Dante’s time. Medieval Christians would have a source for it — Satan — and if could easily devise a series of ecclesiastical checklists to test its presence and its power. In our secular world, evil has come down to something that hurts people for no explicable reason: the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the burning of black churches in the South. We have taken evil out of the hands of Satan, and placed it in the hands of man. In doing so, we have made it less absolute, and in many ways less real.
Nonetheless, it must be recognized that in earlier times evil was not only real but palpable. This paper will look at evil as it is portrayed in two different works — Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales — and analyze what the nature 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, and Paradise. The purpose of Dante’s visit to Hell is to learn about the true nature of evil. He is guided in this journey by the ghost of the Roman classical poet Virgil, who, as wise in the ways of the spirit as he may be, cannot go to Heaven because he is not a Christian.
Virgil’s experience in the underworld, however, make him an authority on its structure, and he is more than willing to share his knowledge with Dante in order that Dante might return to life and share his revelations with others. In Hell Dante is presented with insight into the nature of evil, which, he is told, has to be seen and experienced to be understood. At any rate, only after having looked the Devil in the face and seen for himself the horror, the stupidity, and the self-destructiveness of Hell, is Dante ready to move out of the Inferno and back up toward the light of God’s love. Dante conceived of Hell as a cone-shaped hole, terraced into seven concentric “rings”. The uppermost level, Limbus, actually is not a Hell at all, but merely an abode for good people born into the culture of Christianity but who themselves had never been 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 a frozen lake which is the abode of Satan himself. Each different type of sin merits its own ring. The unfortunate inhabitants of each ring and pouch and section of Hell receive a different.