Dante's Views of Chivalry and Warfare, Canto's XII and XXVIII

by B. S.
The Collegiate School, 1997


Throughout Dante Alighieri's Inferno, the warlike and the social concept behind chivalry is one of intense concern for this author from the Middle Ages. What makes Canto XII so important in terms of understanding Dante's feelings on chivalry and war is that the reader is seeing Dante's views on warfare not only from the perspective of an observer, but from the perspective of a participant. Later in the Inferno, Canto XXVIII proves to be very revealing as Dante directly attacks the views of chivalry and warfare that are held by Bertran de Born, a troubadour poet. The noble, glorious notions associated with chivalry and the Middle Ages were certainly pertinent to warfare in Dante's time, when warfare was a profession - a way of life."[01] With regards to his own involvement in war, Dante, in Canto XII, not only passes judgement on other sinners, but he passes judgement on himself as a member of the cavalry.

 It is fitting that Dante chooses to use the canto, the "Violent against their Neighbors," as a metaphor that seeks to explain chivalric warfare. Chiron and his men are described as a massive army, the coming of which is described as such, "between it and the base of the embankment / raced files of Centaurs who were armed with arrows, / as, in the world above, they used to hunt." [02]Their numbers are in the "thousands" (XII, 73 ), and it seems appropriate that Dante chooses the centaurs, a mixture of both man and horse, to represent a medieval army, for during chivalric wars of Medieval times "the man on horse, possessing both military and shock action, was clearly in command."[03]Immediately Dante establishes the framework for this canto as Virgil and he are themselves transformed onto a battlefield. Dante the poet has a personal stake in explaining the foolish irony inherent in the ideas of chivalry The beginning of this canto contains a distinctively emotional, and rather- personal quotation from Dante to the reader, "O blind cupidity and insane anger, / which goad us on so much in our short life, / then steep us in such grief eternally!" W X1E, 49-51 3. Dante lives during a very violent period in history, and maybe it is this chivalric love of warfare, driven by a "blind cupidity" or love for violence, and "insane anger' at the expense of other's lives, that he so detests The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were times during which "They (princes) waged wars of dazzlement, seeking to confound rivals and confirm friends with spectacular displays of gold, silks, and tapestries."[04]The battle at Campaldino, in which Dante took part, was also dominated by the same traits as the old chivalric wars whereby "The man on horse, possessing both mobility and shock actions was clearly in command,"[05]and when "the foot soldier was held generally in low regard."[06]In spite of the fact that Dante recognizes his own involvement in war, he still condemns the irony that such base emotions like "insane anger" could be hidden behind such noble aspirations of men like princes. One must look at the other important piece of evidence in this canto, the being of Chiron himself. Chiron is the leader of these "troops", and it is ironic that these chivalric wars which were so meaningless could be led by men as wise as Chiron, who was, after all, the "tutor of Achilles" ( XII, 71 ). Dante's ambivalent presentation of Chiron as the leader of these "beasts" is his way of showing the irony and wastefulness of chivalry, in that such learned and scholarly men as Chiron would participate in so mindless and extravagant a thing as a chivalric war.

 Intentionally stern in his judgement of the warlike centaurs who represent cavalrymen, Dante wishes to make a distinction between himself as a cavalry member and the Centaurs. The Centaurs are described as "agile beasts" (XII, 76), Chiron is described as having "jaws" ( XII, 78 ), and an "enormous mouth" ( XII, 79 ), and here Dante clearly wants us to look on these warriors as savages They are not warriors, they are beasts, however, Dante never totally defiles a warrior like Chiron, who didn't resist giving Dante and Virgil a "faithful escort" ( XII, 100 ) for the crossing of the Phlegethon. This unwillingness on the part of Dante to totally deprecate the character of Chiron is because Chiron, above all of the other centaurs in this canto, most resembles Dante because of his intelligences and Dante clearly doesn't want to make it seem as if there was no sense of propriety in all warriors. However, it is essential for Dante to distance himself from the rest of the centaurs, as he clearly wants the reader to see that he was not like most knights of his day.

 There lies a strange relationship between Dante and Nessus 5 as Dante intentionally tries to distance himself from this creature, and thus sever any direct comparisons between himself and the creature. It is almost certain that as a member of the cavalry at Campaldino, and one sees Dante riding on Nessus like that of a knight on .., his horse. Dante recognizes his guilt in terms of his involvement at Campaldino; however, he seems to downplay his role.[07]Dante rides over on top of Nessus, thereby establishing a double standard for himself for by riding on Nessus' back, he is literarily and figuratively putting himself above these centaurs or "agile beasts" ( XII, 76 ), while he still is not denying his own guilt sitting as he is like a knight on his mount. As Dante rides upon Nessus's back, he makes no commentary about what is going on, and he never addresses himself to Nessus, as if he feels himself to be of a different class than Nessus. Riding on Nessus' back, Dante is attempting to show that he is above the violent, "hasty will[ed]" ( XII, 66 ) centaurs, although he never attempts to discredit his past history as a cavalry member.

While Virgil is always Dante's mentor throughout the Inferno, at the end of canto XII Dante gives himself over to be led by Nessus in an act suggestive not of his submission to Nessus, but of Dante's attempt to further wash his hands of his past guilt as a warrior. Nessus becomes Dante's "guide" ( XII, 114 ), and for the first time Dante is letting someone else other than Virgil lead him. This act of Dante's is a subtle suggestion that if he did in fact fight in tne battle at Campaldino, he was led into battle just as Nessus is leading him now, rather than if he were to charge into battle. Again, Dante is not claiming innocence, but he is distancing himself from those chivalric, "frenzied" ( XII, 71 ) warriors who thirsted for a battlefield. Although Dante claims that there were "many whom I recognized" ( XII, 123 ) among those in the Phlegethon, for the most part he needs Nessus to point things out. The unusual lack of detailed personal narrative from Dante is a clever way of letting it be known that although he found himself in battle, it was more as a passive and reluctant recruit who was "guided" into battle.

 As Canto XII ends, one has a better idea about Dante's reluctance to openly condemn chivalric warfare as his consciousness of his own history in warfare humbles him. This canto establishes that although Dante feels somewhat responsible for- his actions at Campaldino, he still feels chivalric warfare to be a vicious and wasteful enterprise, one from which he tries to distance himself personally.

 The character of Bertran de Born is essential to understanding the way in which Dante viewed the chivalric warfare of his time. All of Canto XXVIII is a parody of the type of warfare that Bertran so praised in his poetry about military endeavors. Canto XXVIII is Bertran's battlefield realized, and one in which the reader comes face to face not only with Bertran's sins of "severing" the ties between king and son, but with the fact that everything in life that Bertran de in admired and praised is, according to Dante, disgusting and malicious. As Dante,,.e begins this canto, he immediately attacks Bertran de Born and his abilities as a Poet. There are many instances in the Inferno in which Dante tries to belittle his own abilities as a poet, and he does the same at Canto XXVIII's beginnings In speaking of the carnage surrounding him, Dante says, "Each tongue that tries would certainly fall short / because the shallowness of both our speech / and intellect cannot contain so much" ( XXVIII, 4-6 ). Bertran de Born was a very famous troubadour whose success depended on his depicting and glorifying scenes of violence on the battlefield,[08]but here Dante is saying that no one can forcefully describe the bloodshed of wartime, and thus Dante has ridiculed Bertran's accomplishments as a poet.

Much of the language and description that Dante gives in Canto XXVIII car. be said to parody one of Bertran de Born's more famous poems[09]about warfare and the trials of being a nobleman, "Mout mi plai quan vey dolenta."[10]In his disparagement of the selfishness of peasants in "Mout mi plai quan vey dolenta," Bertran's verse is translated to say that "A man should never feel sorry for a peasant if he sees him break an arm or a leg or do without something he needs."[11]Seeing that the one thing that has been cut off from Bertran is "his severed head" ( XXVIII, 121 ), Dante seems to intentionally insult Bertran, in that Dante is obviously not sorry for this man, and thus Dante means to say most likely that Bertran's "severed head" is worth no more worry than something like a peasant's loss of a limb. This noble arrogance of Bertran's is something that Dante disdains, and thus here he mocks not only Bertran the man, but Bertran the poet by parodying the imagry of Bertran's poetry.

 As Bertran de Born's soul is placed within hell's 8th-] ring, the power of the human body, the primary source of influence for Bertran US poetic verses, is destroyed. This poet reveled in seeing "every man of rank think only of hacking heads and arms,"[12]and all his poetry on warfare glorified a knight that "is first to attack on his horse."[13]When Bertran says that he now carries his "brain dissevered from its source," one can take this statement metaphorically as meaning he can no longer function as the poet he was, being separated from the physical world. In Bertran's speech at the canto's end, not only does his rhyme scheme seem to have no distinct pattern other than three tersets and a quartet, but everything that Bertran de Born says goes contrary to his bullish views on warfare. Bertran describes what he is going through as an "atrocious punishment," whereas when he still existed as flesh, he glorified such carnage as now surrounds him. Another signal of Bertran's diminished power as a poet is the manner in which he uses the word "contrapasso" to describe his punishment in hell. As Kenneth Gross argues: If he uses the word contrapasso to refer to some sort of retaliatory punishment which he suffers under the hand of the Old Law, then he is clearly wrong. Bertran de Born alone bears responsibility for the shape of his soul.[14]

 If Bertran de Born, famous troubadour of thirteenth century France, can not even reflect upon his own actions and realize that it is as a result of his own actions that he is in hell, and not. because of God's vengeance or "contrapasso", then clearly Bertran has lost his poetical prowess. The fact that "contrapasso" is the light in which Bertran views his punishment is Dante's way of explaining that Bertran de Born has lost his abilities to analyze and reason, tools essential to poets. Bertran's poetry glorified fierce emotions of the body, and thus in hell, where only the soul exists, there is no way for Bertran's poetry to thrive This said, Dante is making a statement about the nature of chivalry described by Bertran. Chivalry must not involve deep thinking; otherwise, Bertran's capabilities as a poet would have survived beyond the physical world. Through Bertran's demise as a poet while he is in hell, the ideas of chivalry are seen at their most basic level, and what is left to see is that chivalry and warfare are influenced by the heart, not by the mind.

 There is a deep ironic twist to this canto, as Dante mocks that battlefield of which Bertran de Born wrote so eloquently. How noble indeed is this battlefield which one sees« as these people make their "way around the road of pair," (XXVIII, 40) while "a devil decks us out so cruelly" ( XXVIII, 37-8 ). There is a strange sense of order to this canto, as the sinners are marched around in a circular path, while a demon systematically slices them apart. This is a clear mockery of a chivalrous battle, which was always arranged i- an orderly manner by skilled knights who went to battle more for show than out. of necessity[15]. So often in, Bertran de Born's poem "Be-m plai lo gais temps de pascor", there is mentioned the precision of "an army on the bank, surrounded by ditches, and palisades of strong stakes close together"[16]in the process of readying an attack. Unlike other cantos, there intentionally is a disarming and ironic order to this canto that is mocking the pomp and precision in Bertran's chivalric or noble wars.

 Another important factor in this canto is the way in which. the sinners are tortured: by being sliced by a sword.

 It is ironic that the choice weapon of the "noble" or "brave" knight of the Middle Ages, the long sword, should be the very same weapon that the devil, who represents evil and bad intentions, would choose to cut down the sinners. Dante is clearly comparing this demon wielding a sword to a knight. Bertran de Born mentions with joviality in his poem "Be-m plai lo gais temps de pascor" how "we shall see clubs and swords, colorful helmets,... .[17]Moreover, there is nothing noble about the way this demon is slicing his victims, such as those whom Dante says " I / saw ripped right from his chin to where we fart: X his bowels hung between his legs..." ( XXVIII, 23-5 ). Thus, the description shows how ignoble Dante really felt the chivalric knights to be, as everything from the weapons they chose to the way in which they killed is appalling. After reaching the end of this canto , one sees how contemptuous Dante was of Bertran de BG. I-i Born's) exaltation of chivalry as applied to the art of war. It is fitting that Dante ends this canto, after describing the mutilation of everyone from Mohammed and Ali to Fra Dolcino, with the person of Bertran de Born, whom for Dante exemplifies all that was to be hated about medieval notions of chivalric warfare. Dante seems to be so horrified by Bertran de Born that as he sees him beneath the bridge, he says that he "saw a thing that I should be afraid to tell with no more proof than my own self" ( XXVIII, 113-4 ). For Dante, the warfare that Bertran de Born loved was inhuman, just as Bertran de Born appears to resemble some creature o "thing", as compared to the other sinners in this canto who, though mutilated, resemble human beings. Thus, Dante concludes this canto making very clear his distaste for the "noble" type of warfare about which the troubadour Bertran de Born wrote in his own poetry.

 For Dante Alighieri, the notion of fighting a battle for a "noble cause" is sickening Two different forms of knights in cantos XII and XXVIII are shown to us, and they are either menacing, beast-like centaurs or demons wielding lethal swords Although the entire book the Inferno is an inner introspection for Dante, few cantos so personally move the author as XII and XXVIII. During Dante's lifetime, all men lived in constant fear of incumbent battle, and Dante, after having fought in a battle himself, realized that he was more adept at waging purposeful war on others through his writings than through the carnage of chivalric battle.