Theses Doctoral

Dante Praedicator: Sermons and Preaching Culture in the Commedia

Mackin, Zane D. R.

Starting from the premise that Dante takes influence from the sermons and preaching culture of his time in his construction of a voice of authority, this dissertation tracks the poet's use of sermonic material and rhetoric, as well as more explicit discussions on preaching through his entire corpus.

Chapter One, "Dante Praedicator? Introduction to an Understudied Rhetorical Mode in the Commedia," elaborates on the argument that Dante the poet oftentimes acts as a preacher, and shows how this claim opens up new lines of inquiry into the poet's textuality. The first part of this chapter shows how the Commedia's early reception practically takes for granted that the poem is a sort of sermon, and supporting evidence shows in detail how the poem and preaching share much of the same subject matter, and demonstrates how the poem and sermons answer generic and stylistic questions in much the same way. The second section of this chapter surveys the last hundred years of Dante studies, to trace the roots of the recent critical prejudice against non-poetic influences on the poet's work - ranging from liturgy, Christian doctrine and preaching - and hypothesizes its source in Benedetto Croce's seminal 1921 essay, "La poesia di Dante," which rejects the idea of a didactic and hortatory Dante in order to focus instead on the poet qua poet. This vision of a secularized and emphatically "poetic" Dante became the status quo in Dante scholarship (although not without a few dissenters). Finally, the chapter summarizes some of the more recent work discovering the predicatory in Dante, and hypothesizes new questions about this textual mode in the Commedia, which the following chapters of this dissertation will discuss.

Chapter Two, "Prohibition and Permission (with a Consideration of the Bolgia of Hypocrisy and Fra Dolcino)," explores the preaching of Dante's time. This chapter explains the social and historical circumstances around the 1214 legislation of Lateran IV, which ordered the ordainment of new preachers, and then recounts the thirteenth century renaissance of preaching as a means to propagate orthodoxy at a time when heresy threatened the Church's unity and stability. Because of this threat that heretical preaching had caused, the Church attempted to regulate preaching through prohibitions and permissions. The chapter then explores Dante's response to these legislative issues in the Commedia - specifically in his treatment of the hypocrites in Inferno 23, and of the schismatics and sowers of discord in Inferno 28. The chapter concludes by arguing that Dante responds to the mandates of church legislation with a considerable degree of indifference. On the one hand he highlights the failure of officials within the Church hierarchy who ought to preach, and on the other refuses to criticize the preaching of zealots that the Church censures as heretics on the other.

After the previous chapter's exploration of Dante's relationship to preaching legislation, Chapter Three, "Predicante Iustitiam: Dante the Self-Authorizing Poet," explores more deeply what the poet means when he talks about preaching. The first part of this tripartite chapter proceeds philologically, examining first how Dante's poem consistently refuses to associate anyone identified as a "cherco," "prete," "pastor" or "sacerdote" with preaching, choosing instead to generally highlight the misdeeds of such figures. In this way the poet clears the pulpit of competition, aiming to situate himself, eventually, in that same role. The second part follows philologically as well, to examining variations on the word "predicare" as it occurs in the literature of Dante's milieu and in his own writing, and revealing its unique power as a word used to declare objective truths, though not without unique rhetorical overtones. Finally, the third section shows how Dante's careful use of "predicare" in his letters establishes himself as a preaching figure par excellence, who draws from the apostolic precedents established in the New Testament, as well as the prophetic and apocalyptic Noahic precedent as theorized in II Peter 2:5-7.

Chapter Four, "Dicitur predicatio quandoque prophetia," continues where the previous chapter left off, with the suggestion that preaching and prophecy are in many cases one and the same thing. Taking a step away from the common contemporary belief in Dante studies that prophecy is generally something oriented towards forecasting events, this chapter uses Scripture, Aquinas's theology and the artes praedicandi in circulation in Dante's time to show how prophecy and preaching were understood to go hand in hand, well into the Middle Ages. Once this theoretical framework is established, the chapter proceeds to re-evaluate some of Dante's discussions on prophets in Paradiso, namely Nathan of the Old Testament and the twelfth century prophet Joachim of Fiore, to show that what Dante values as "prophetic" in these figures is also closely linked to their status as interpreters and preachers of divine truth, rather than any particular skills at forecasting (i.e. prophecy in the strict sense, according to contemporary standards).

Chapters Five and Six mark a transition to a more focused analysis of preaching in the Commedia, to investigate Dante's sustained, but more subtle, use of the rhetorical techniques of preaching. Chapter Five, "The Art of Preaching in the Sphere of the Sun," examines the sequence of canti in Paradiso 10-13, to show the influence of the artes praedicandi on the rhetoric of these canti, and particularly on the speech of Thomas Aquinas, as Dante represents him here. An in-depth discussion of a form of preaching gaining influence in the duecento, sermo modernus, explains what it is, its component parts, and the way that it was used in Dante's world, and how it propagates a certain logical modes of thinking. Finally, Aquinas's speech in Paradiso 10-13 is examined for traces of sermo modernus, demonstrating that the poet intended to inflect Aquinas's language with predicatory valences, in the pursuit of a moral and ethical message that can be considered "authoritative."

Chapter Six, "Beyond Sermo Modernus: Street Preaching in the Primum Mobile," turns to Beatrice's discourse in Paradiso 29, which combines complex theological discussion with a scabrous criticism of vainglorious street preaching. With language oscillating wildly between high and low registers, Beatrice rails against both the pseudoscience and philosophical ornament bogging down contemporary sermons, as well as the jests and buffooneries that less erudite street preachers employ to amuse their audience and extract favors and monetary compensation from them. It will be shown that here too the poet freely employs the language of the street, in echo of popular preachers of the time, and his willingness to embrace the physical and grotesque proves that his predicatory language is ultimately grounded in things, in the real. I will turn to examples from the life of St. Francis of Assisi to illustrate here his that his emphasis on things is represented not only in the preacher's words but also in his body, his acts, his example.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Barolini, Teodolinda
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 21, 2013