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