Dante in Transition: The Renaissance as a Continuation of, not a Reaction to, the Middle Ages

Viewing their own intellectual and cultural feats as watershed, Renaissance humanists practically invented themselves by contrasting the merits of their generation with the “barbaric” or medieval tendencies of the peoples before them.[1] It therefore seems as though scholarship from the 19th century forward, starting with Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy in particular, did not advance a new paradigm of thought by separating the Renaissance from the Middle Ages on the basis of the perceived intellectual and cultural differences between the two eras.

If a clear change did occur between medieval and Renaissance mentalities, then when did the one age yield irrevocably to the next? Which personalities—conditioned by their intellectual, spiritual, and social climates—started the process, or which personalities brought the process to a close? One can hardly offer a specific date, as the change did not occur over night or even clearly over the course of one century. And every person an historian analyzes tends to have at least one antecedent, so the historian may be inclined to regard this antecedent as a principle agent in his own right. For example, Petrarch, regarded as the first among the humanists of the Italian Renaissance, had an obvious antecedent in the figure of Dante Alighieri, a medieval man despite his humanist qualities.

In essence, the periodization process of establishing the Renaissance as an age separate from the Middle Ages is problematic, for the overlap between late medieval and Renaissance mentalities makes the end of the former age almost indistinguishable from the latter in many key respects. Lost in the periodization process is the fact that certain figures possess certain traits that permeate the wall between these historiographically separate eras. This essay explores Dante as one such figure.

The piety of medieval society does mark a noticeable contrast between the late medieval period and the period of the humanists, or the Renaissance, when secular pursuits took priority over the otherworldly focus that had characterized the medieval mindset. This contrast has facilitated the scholarly process of separating the ages from each other, of dichotomizing people into the Late Middle Ages, with its emphasis on corporate Christian identity, or into the Renaissance, with its emphasis on individuality, secular civic pursuits, and classical revival.

But it might be necessary to qualify the prevailing notion that the medieval worldview centered primarily on Christendom—and certain historians have indeed challenged this conventional thread of historiography. John Van Engen, for example, surveys historians who question the validity of the “legend” or “myth of the Christian Middle Ages” on the grounds that Christianity did not serve as the primary means of identification among Europeans during the period. Rather, using the methodologies of anthropology and comparative religious studies, these historians make the case that folkloric, non-Christian, classical, pagan attributes continued to pervade people’s sense of identity, thereby informing people’s Christian faith in heterodoxical or heretical ways.[2]

The looseness of orthodoxy continued well into the Late Middle Ages – an era that saw a profound revival in the civic and intellectual styles of classical antiquity. Even in the preceding High Middle Ages of the 12th century, Christians displayed a sincere devotion to classical texts by authors such as Virgil, Ovid, and Horace—texts that the humanists of the Renaissance were likewise to revere. From the 12th century onward, these texts, though pagan in origin, were read, valued, and disseminated among the literate in conjunction with ecclesiastical works.[3]

One might study the work of Dante, historiographically assigned to the late medieval period, to appreciate how the Christian worldview accommodated non-Christian elements. Using these pagan motifs to advance his concept of Christian salvation, Dante testifies to the heterogeneous nature of religious self-identity in medieval Europe. In his Inferno, Dante places mythological figures and landscapes in the setting of Hell as if to imply that Greco-Roman myths play a necessary function in Christian soteriology.

Dante further implies this continuity between the pagan and the Christian by making the Roman poet Virgil his guide through the nine circles of Hell. Virgil is a righteous pagan, his only shortcoming in life having been that he predated Christ’s redemption.[4] Spared from the tortures of Hell proper because of his pagan morality, Virgil spends his afterlife in the peaceful solemnity of Limbo, keeping timeless company with other classical figures such as Julius Caesar and poet Homer.[5] But his righteousness allows Virgil to communicate beyond Limbo. Specifically, he treats with the heavenly Beatrice, who appeals to the poet’s understanding of sin to save the pilgrim Dante, who has wandered from the straight path.[6] Dante’s reverence for Virgil testifies to the fact that the pagan and the Christian fashioned Dante. Dante sought salvation in Christ, to be sure; but only through the efforts of Virgil, a pagan intermediary, could Dante rediscover the straight path leading to Christ.

Dante’s reverence for, and his robust application of, the classics might compel scholars to reassign Dante and his generation to the Renaissance. With Dante inspiring the humanists a generation after his death in 1321, one could indeed make an artful case that Dante should be grandfathered into the humanist tradition. But in making this case, one might find it difficult to discount Dante’s quintessentially medieval attributes. For instance, Dante’s conception of Ancient Rome testifies convincingly to his medieval mindset. To be sure, humanists yearned for a revival of classical Roman life, as Dante had; but whereas humanists such as Petrarch and Machiavelli championed the Roman Republic as the pinnacle of civilization, Dante championed the Roman Empire. To Dante, Christ’s birth during the principate of Augustus Caesar legitimized the Roman Empire.[7] Dante further recognized the continuity between the emperors of Roman antiquity and the German Holy Roman Emperors of his day, whom God had also legitimized by virtue of this continuity.[8] And while Dante had in fact been affiliated with the pro-papal Guelphs, his work de facto supported the imperial agenda of the Ghibellines in Italy after Boniface VIII effected his exile from Florence.

Thus, when Boniface VIII, through his bull Unam Sanctum (1302), sought to subjugate the temporal sovereignty of kings and emperors to the spiritual judgment of the papacy, Dante regarded this action as an attack on the Godly legitimacy of the greater imperial Roman tradition. Dante responded to Unam Sanctum with his treatise On Monarchy,[9] written in the scholastic method that humanists were to dismiss as too Aristotelian in style. Dante reasons that emperors and kings, as temporal agents of God, enjoy authority equal to that of the pontiffs, God’s spiritual agents. Kings and emperors, deriving their power directly from God and not from his vicars, do not have to answer to popes. Peter has no grounds to subjugate Caesar to his will, as each agent wields his divine sword with equal charge in his separate sphere of governance.[10]

Using the scholastic method in On Monarchy, Dante is unquestionably medieval in his style and objective. And his concern with the divine charges of emperors and popes testifies further to Dante’s medieval character. Humanists, for their part, often deconstructed rulers in a manner that showcased their base, earthly aspirations. The divinity of offices did not feature so prominently in humanist analyses. For example, using philology, humanist Lorenzo Valla demonstrated how the popes since the 8th century had derived their temporal authority in the West from a forged document, The Donation of Constantine.

Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532) likewise shows the office of the papacy to be a means of making temporal gains.  Describing Alexander VI as one who “knew the ways of the world,” Machiavelli lauds this pope for his ability to deceive others, to renege on his promises, and to pacify whole regions of Italy with cruelty and despotism. A Borgia, Alexander VI cared more for his family’s status and influence than he cared for his reputation as the Holy Father of Christendom. Machiavelli further encourages the Medici pope Leo X to follow Alexander’s example so that he may unite Italy against foreign intrigue.[11]  Writing to the Medici family directly, Machiavelli naturally appeals to God’s role in empowering great men, namely Leo, to do His will.[12] But one might assume that Machiavelli merely references God out of deference to Leo’s office, for the rest of The Prince is tasked with cataloguing the successes and failures of rulers on the basis of their earthly capacities—that is, on the basis of their abilities to wield cruelty and despotism at will to achieve their political ends. Empowered by their worldly gifts, they seize control, wield influence, and consolidate power—or, hindered by their earthly faults, they fail abjectly in these endeavors. They provide for their own greatness, or they burden themselves in their own tasks. But the will of God does not feature prominently in their deeds—not according to Machiavelli, a Renaissance humanist who observes the agency of man in his own successes and failures.

Key factors distinguish medieval Dante from his Renaissance successors, but scholars would be remiss if they did not acknowledge Dante for his many proto-humanist attributes. Dante may have concerned himself with the divine sanctions of emperors and popes, but his fierce insistence on the independence and strength of the emperors certainly shows how Dante valued and championed temporal meritocracy. In modern parlance, he advocated the separation of church and state. Furthermore, Dante used the scholastic method to structure his arguments, but while medieval figures such as Thomas Aquinas used the method in the service of the Catholic Church, Dante used it to challenge the interests of the Church, fathered as it was by errant popes. Did the Lorenzo Valla—in saying that the papacy “‘patronized falsehood’”[13]—not likewise challenge the interests of the Church?[14]  Did Valla not follow Dante’s example?

Historiography has relegated the Late Middle Ages to the status of “benighted backdrop to the revival of classical civilization in the fourteenth century.”[15] Scholars might continue maintaining this backdrop characterization—but as seen in the feats of Dante, this backdrop was anything but benighted. The Late Middle Ages enjoyed a classical vitality of its own, a vitality that cultivated the Italian Renaissance’s deeper levels of classical thought. The humanists were natural extensions of, not reactions to, their medieval antecedents.[16]

Among the many theories that analyze the relationship between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the transitional thesis supported by Wallace K. Ferguson and Donald Sullivan bears the most strength. Specifically, the transitional thesis maintains that the “traditional elements” of the one age merged with the “new forces” of the next,  the elements and the forces synthesizing in such a way that preserved the integrity of the old world while acknowledging the coming of the new one.[17] Dante’s intellectual and literary legacy is the transitional thesis writ large: Dante’s spirit and agenda, though medieval, inspired the “new forces” of the Italian Renaissance. Humanists continued in Dante’s most exalted legacy.

[1] Herbert Weisinger, “The Attack on the Renaissance in Theology Today,” Studies in the Renaissance vol. 2 (1955), p. 176. Herbert Weisinger, “The Renaissance Theory of the Reaction Against the Middle Ages as a Cause of the Renaissance,” Speculum vol. 20, no. 4 (1945) pp. 461-462.

[2] John Van Engen, “Christian Middle Ages as an Historiographical Problem,” The American Historical Review vol. 91, no.3 (1986), p. 538, 552.

[3] Eva Matthews Sanford, “The Twelfth Century — Renaissance or Proto-Renaissance?” Speculum 26, no. 4 (1951), p. 638.

[4] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Inferno, trans. Mark Musa (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), p. 71.

[5] Dante, Inferno, pp. 100-101.

[6] Ibid., p. 67, 81.

[7] See Dante Alighieri, The De Monarchia of Dante Alighieri, trans. Aurelia Henry (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1904), pp. 59-63.

[8] Dante Alighieri, “On Monarchy,” in Classics of Western Thought: Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation, vol.4, ed. Karl F. Thompson (Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988), pp. 97-98.

[9] Most scholars agree that Dante wrote On Monarchy in the years 1312-13.

[10] Ibid., 93-98 . Boniface VIII, “Unam Sanctum,” in The European Reformations Sourcebook, ed. Carter Lindberg (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), p. 10. Boniface and Dante, in discussing the temporal and spiritual swords, refer to Luke 22: 38 and Mathew 26:52.

[11] Niccolò Machiavelli, “The Prince,” in Classics of Western Thought: Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation, vol. 4, ed. Karl F. Thompson (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Johanovich, 1992), p. 284, 287.

[12] Ibid., pp. 290-291.

[13] Christopher Celenza, The Lost Italian Renaissance: Humanists, Historians, and Latin’s Legacy (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 2004), p. 91.

[14] See Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (New York: Harper Books, 1958), pp. 444-445.

[15] Donald Sullivan, “The End of the Middle Ages: Decline, Crisis, or Transformation?” The History Teacher 14, no. 4 (1981), p. 552.

[16] Weisinger, “The Renaissance Theory of the Reaction,” pp. 461-462.

[17] Sullivan, “The End of the Middle Ages,” p. 558. Ferguson, “The Church in a Changing World: A Contribution to the Interpretation of the Renaissance,” The American Historical Review, vol. 59, no. 1 (1953), p. 2.


Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy: Inferno. Translated by Mark Musa. New York: Penguin Books. 1984.

________. On Monarchy (1312-13). Edited by Karl F. Thompson. In Classics of Western  Thought: Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation, Vol. 4. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Johanovich. 1992.

________. The De Monarchia of Dante Alighieri (1312-13). Translated and Edited by Aurelia Henry. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company. 1904.

Boniface VIII. Unam Sanctum (18 November 1302). Edited by Carter Lindberg. In The European Reformations Sourcebook. Malden, MA: Blackwell. 2000.

Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. New York: Harper Books. 1958.

Celenza, Christopher. The Lost Italian Renaissance: Humanists, Historians, and Latin’s Legacy. Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press. 2004.

Ferguson, Wallace K. “The Church in a Changing World: A Contribution to the Interpretation of the Renaissance.” The American Historical Review Vol. 59, No. 1 (1953): 1-18.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince (1532). Edited by Karl F. Thompson. In Classics of Western Thought: Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation, Vol. 4. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Johanovich. 1992.

Sanford, Eva Matthews. “The Twelfth Century—Renaissance or Proto-Renaissance?” Speculum 26, no. 4 (1951): 635-642.

Sullivan, Donald. “The End of the Middle Ages: Decline, Crisis, or Transformation?” The History Teacher Vol. 14, No. 4 (1981): 551-565.

Van Engen, John. “Christian Middle Ages as an Historiographical Problem.” The American Historical Review Vol. 91, No.3 (1986): 519-552.

Weisinger, Herbert. “The Renaissance Theory of the Reaction against the Middle Ages as  a Cause of the Renaissance.” Speculum Vol. 20, No.4 (1945): 461-467.

________.“The Attack on the Renaissance in Theology Today.” Studies in the Renaissance 2. (1955): 176-189.

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