David Bruce: Dante’s INFERNO: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 19: The Simonists”

“Canto 19: The Simonists”

  • The Inferno is divided into three major subdivisions — incontinence, violence, and fraud.

Of course, we know that heresy is also punished in the Inferno, although it does not fit into the pagan classification of sins that include incontinence, violence, and fraud.

At this point, we are entering the final two Circles: the two Circles that are devoted to punishing fraud. Simple fraud is punished in Circle 8, and complex fraud is punished in Circle 9.

  • In Canto 19, Dante for the first time engages in apostrophes. What are apostrophes? (No, they are not marks of punctuation in this context; instead, apostrophe is a rhetorical device.)

Apostrophes occur when the writer addresses an absent person or thing as if that person or thing were present. In Canto 19, Dante addresses these persons as if they were present:

1) Simon Magus

2) All Simonists

3) Divine Wisdom

4) Constantine the Great

Dante’s first apostrophe is directed at Simon Magus, who is not present (he is not where he can be seen by Dante the Pilgrim). Dante also refers to all Simonists, some of whom are present.

Here is Dante’s first apostrophe:

O Simon Magus, O forlorn disciples,

Ye who the things of God, which ought to be

The brides of holiness, rapaciously

For silver and for gold do prostitute,

(Longfellow 19.1-4)

Note the word “prostitute” here. The last sinner we saw in the bolgia was Thaïs the whore. She forms a fitting transition to the sin of Simony.

  • What is Simony?

Simony is the selling or buying of church offices or spiritual benefits.

For example, if I want to be the Bishop of a city, I could go to a corrupt Pope in the Middle Ages and pay money to become Bishop. This was a major problem and led to reform in the church, although periodic reform was occasionally needed in Dante’s day, as well as in other times.

Sinners could also buy indulgences. The belief was that by paying money, the sinner would not be punished for certain sins. It is buying forgiveness of sin with money.

  • In Canto 19, Dante the Pilgrim grows. In The Divine Comedy, he starts out naive and ignorant, and he ends up smart.

We saw in Canto 5 that Dante the Pilgrim was naive. Francesca da Rimini scammed him into pitying her. Later, Dante the Pilgrim began to become less naive. When he met Filippo Argenti in Canto 8, he wanted Filippo to be punished more than he already was. Virgil praised Dante for this, apparently because he saw righteous anger in Dante at Filippo’s sin.

Now, in Canto 19 Dante is really going to be angry at the sinners who commit the sin of Simony, which is a very serious sin indeed. Dante the Pilgrim truly is becoming smart.

  • Dante the Poet is audacious and courageous. He does not hesitate to put Popes in the Inferno.

Dante the Poet puts Popes in Hell. This, of course, is a very courageous thing to do. Think what would happen if someone were to write that the current Pope deserves to be in Hell.

On 2 October 1992, an Irish singer named Sinead O’Connor appeared on Saturday Night Live, where she made a few critical comments about the Pope, then tore up his photograph. She was much criticized for that, and when she tried to sing on a stage a few days later, the audience booed her off the stage and would not let her perform. What Dante does is much more audacious than what Sinead O’Connor did.

Of course, what Dante is doing is speaking truth to power, much as the Old Testament prophets did. He is very much against Simony, and he is not afraid to speak out forcibly against it. He also believes that this kind of criticism is needed. To make the church stronger, we need to root out corruption in the church. Therefore, Dante sees this kind of criticism as constructive rather than destructive.

  • Who was Simon Magus?

We read about Simon Magus in Acts 8. Peter and John are using one of the gifts of God: the laying on of hands to convey the Holy Spirit. Simon Magus is impressed by this and wants to pay Peter and John money to teach him how to do that. Of course, Peter and John are insulted because the laying on of hands to convey the Holy Spirit is a free gift of God and is not for sale (Acts 8.20-23; King James version):

20:But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.

21:Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God.

22:Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee.

23:For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity.

The apocryphal Acts of Peter tells us about Simon Magus’ death. Simon became a magician, and he learned to fly. Saint Peter prays for Simon to fall, and he does fall. (By the way, magusmeans magician, and apocryphalmeans of questionable or doubtful authenticity or authorship.)

This is what we read in the apocryphal Acts of Peter:

XXXII. And already on the morrow a great multitude assembled at the Sacred Way to see him flying. And Peter came unto the place, having seen a vision (or, to see the sight), that he might convict him in this also; for when Simon entered into Rome, he amazed the multitudes by flying: but Peter that convicted him was then not yet living at Rome: which city he thus deceived by illusion, so that some were carried away by him (amazed at him).

So then this man standing on an high place beheld Peter and began to say: Peter, at this time when I am going up before all this people that behold me, I say unto thee: If thy God is able, whom the Jews put to death, and stoned you that were chosen of him, let him show that faith in him is faith in God, and let it appear at this time, if it be worthy of God. For I, ascending up, will show myself unto all this multitude, who I am. And behold when he was lifted up on high, and all beheld him raised up above all Rome and the temples thereof and the mountains, the faithful looked toward Peter. And Peter seeing the strangeness of the sight cried unto the Lord Jesus Christ: If thou suffer this man to accomplish that which he hath set about, now will all they that have believed on thee be offended, and the signs and wonders which thou hast given them through me will not be believed: hasten thy grace, O Lord, and let him fall from the height and be disabled; and let him not die but be brought to nought, and break his leg in three places. And he fell from the height and brake his leg in three places. Then every man cast stones at him and went away home, and thenceforth believed Peter.

But one of the friends of Simon came quickly out of the way (or arrived from a journey), Gemellus by name, of whom Simon had received much money, having a Greek woman to wife, and saw him that he had broken his leg, and said: O Simon, if the Power of God is broken to pieces, shall not that God whose Power thou art, himself be blinded? Gemellus therefore also ran and followed Peter, saying unto him: I also would be of them that believe on Christ. And Peter said: Is there any that grudgeth it, my brother? come thou and sit with us.

But Simon in his affliction found some to carry him by night on a bed from Rome unto Aricia; and he abode there a space, and was brought thence unto Terracina to one Castor that was banished from Rome upon an accusation of sorcery. And there he was sorely cut (Lat. by two physicians), and so Simon the angel of Satan came to his end.

Source: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/actspeter.html

From The Apocryphal New Testament

M.R. James-Translation and Notes

Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924

Date Downloaded: 26 January 2009

Simon Magus’ fall gives us an interesting image. We can think of him hitting the ground headfirst and creating a hole with just his feet sticking out.

  • The followers of Simon Magus are Simonists. What do they do?

They do the same kind of things that Simon wanted to do. They pay money for spiritual gifts or religious offices, or they take money for spiritual gifts and religious offices.

By the way, the Catholic Church has reformed itself a number of times. Today, if Simony plays a role in the election of a Pope, that election is invalid.

  • What do Dante and Virgil see in this part of the Circle?

They see stone holes in the ground — holes that look like the baptismal fonts of Dante’s day. The baptismal fonts of Dante’s day were hexagonal pools of water, and at each corner was a stone hole where somebody could stand.

Sticking out of the holes in this circle of Hell are feet — sinners are stuck in the holes. Flames are burning the feet of the sinners. We will find out that each time a new sinner arrives at one of the holes the new sinner pushes deeper down into the holes the sinners who arrived earlier.

This, of course, is just like Simon Magus crashing headfirst into the ground after flying around in the air.

  • Once, a child got stuck in a baptismal font, and Dante freed the child by breaking the baptismal font. Why do you suppose that Dante tells us this?

This is very important. Dante had to break a baptismal font to save the life of a child. This is an interesting image because Dante is actually doing a very good thing although he may appear to be doing a very bad thing. Certainly, breaking a baptismal font may appear to be a very bad thing to do; however, Dante is doing that for a very good reason: to save the life of a child.

Similarly, in Canto 19 Dante is going to very vigorously criticize some Popes and the church. That may appear to be a very bad thing, but Dante, of course, is trying to reform the church. By pointing out that what the church is doing is wrong — the church is engaging in Simony — Dante hopes to make the church stronger.

In the entire Divine Comedy, Dante is trying to reform the Church and make it stronger.

  • How are the Simonists being punished, and how is that punishment appropriate?

In the third bolgia are punished Simonists (who sell church offices for money), including several popes. The Simonists are upside down in holes resembling baptismal fonts, and flames dance on their feet. When other Simonists arrive, they will push deeper into the hole the Simonists who are already here. (Simon Magus is very deep within one of the holes.) The Simonists pocketed money sinfully gained; now they themselves are being pocketed.

Several things are going on here:

1) First, the sinners are upside down because they placed things upside down in the living world — they placed material things before spiritual things, thus upsetting their proper order.

2) Second, when Dante speaks with Pope Nicholas III, he is like a confessor by the side of an assassin who is soon to be buried alive upside down — Pope Nicholas III will be pushed deeper into the hole when Pope Boniface VIII arrives in a few years. Simonist Popes are assassins of the Church.

3) Third, we see a parody of Pentecost, when flames danced on the heads of the followers of Jesus. Here, of course, the flames are dancing on the feet of the Simonists.

4) Finally, we see a parody of baptism, when water should be splashed on the head of the person being baptized. The holes that the Simonists are buried in resemble the holes of a baptismal font.

One thing to note in Canto 19 is that Dante the Pilgrim is in full agreement with Dante the Poet that these sinners richly deserve their punishment.

  • What is Pentecost?

We read about Pentecost in Acts 2:1-12:

1:And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.

2:And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.

3:And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.

4:And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

5:And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven.

6:Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.

7:And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans?

8:And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?

9:Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia,

10:Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes,

11:Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.

12:And they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this?

  • Why does Dante decide to talk to one of the sinners?

All of the legs are twitching violently, but one set of legs is twitching more violently than the others because it is “burned by a redder flame” (Musa, Inferno19.33). Apparently, some sinners here have sinned more deeply than others, and the flame is hotter for them.

Dante is curious about who the sinner with the violently twitching legs is, and Virgil, being a good teacher, invites Dante to go down into the bolgia and talk to the sinner to find out about the sin that is being punished here. In fact, Virgil carries Dante down to the bolgia. Later, he carries Dante up out of the bolgia. Virgil’s special powers include great strength and sure-footedness.

  • How is the punishment of the Simonists like the punishment given to assassins in Dante’s time?

Assassins in Dante’s time would be buried alive upside down in a hole. They would be given an opportunity to confess their sins before the hole was filled in with dirt.

I stood even as the friar who is confessing

The false assassin, who, when he is fixed,

Recalls him, so that death may be delayed.

(Longfellow 19.49-51)

People who sell church offices are assassins of the Church.

  • What do we learn about Pope Boniface VIII, who was still alive in 1300?

We learn that the spirit who is in the hole where Dante stops is expecting Pope Boniface VIII to be in Hell soon. In fact, he is wondering whether Dante is that Pope, who would be prematurely in the Inferno in 1300.

This pope says to Dante:

And he cried out: “Dost thou stand there already,

Dost thou stand there already, Boniface?

By many years the record lied to me.

Art thou so early satiate with that wealth,

For which thou didst not fear to take by fraud

The beautiful Lady, and then work her woe?”

(Longfellow 19.52-57)

Note: The “beautiful Lady” is the Church, and the “book” is the Book of Fate. (Musa uses the word “book,” while Longfellow uses the word “record.”)

By the way, Pope Boniface VIII died in 1303, so Dante can’t put him in the Inferno in 1300.

Of course, we see here another example of the sinners in the Inferno having knowledge of the future. Pope Nicholas III knows that Pope Boniface VIII will be sentenced to eternal punishment in this Circle of the Inferno after he dies. Pope Boniface VIII deserves this punishment. When he was Pope, he gave many church offices to his relatives and to his friends.

  • To whom is Dante speaking? What is the story of that person?

Dante is surprised that the spirit thinks that he is Pope Boniface VIII, so he is silent until Virgil tells him to tell the spirit that he is not Pope Boniface VIII. Dante does as Virgil suggests.

We then read:

Whereat the spirit writhed with both his feet,

Then, sighing, with a voice of lamentation

Said to me: “Then what wantest thou of me?

If who I am thou carest so much to know,

That thou on that account hast crossed the bank,

Know that I vested was with the great mantle;

And truly was I son of the She-bear,

So eager to advance the cubs, that wealth

Above, and here myself, I pocketed.”

(Longfellow 19.64-72)

This passage gives us enough facts to let us know who he is. The phrase “dressed in the great mantle” (Musa, Inferno19.69) simply means that he was once Pope, and the phrase “the she-bear’s son” (Musa, Inferno19.70) means that he was a member of the Orsini family, a name that means “bear.” The spirit is Pope Nicholas III, who died in 1280.

What he says is important here. Popes traditionally take a new name when they become Pope. Thus, Karol Wojtyla becomes Pope John Paul II. This is similar to Abram becoming Abraham and Saul becoming Paul. The Pope puts aside family in order to rule the universal Church. The Church comes first.

However, this Pope did not do this. Instead, he remained “the she-bear’s son.” That means that he used his power and influence as Pope to advance his family’s interests. Pope Nicholas III put his family ahead of the Church. He gave his relatives church offices, and he advanced the political power of his relatives. This shows that he put his family ahead of God.

  • What is the meaning of this: “wealth / I pocketed in life, and here, myself” (Musa, Inferno19.71-72)?

Once again, we see contrapasso. In life, Pope Nicholas III pocketed money sinfully gained, and by doing so he pocketed himself in this pocket of the Inferno. He is like money that has been carelessly stuffed into a pocket so that a little of the money is sticking out. Of course, the money (and the Pope) will be stuffed deeper into the pocket as more money is (and more Popes are) deposited on top of what is already there.

The word “pocketed” is a famous pun (a pun is a word that two meanings, one of them humorous). This Pope pocketed money in life, and now he himself is pocketed in one of the holes in this Circle of the Inferno.

  • What is Dante the Pilgrim’s reaction when he learns which sin is being punished here?

Previously, Dante has tended to be sympathetic to the sinner (with the exceptions of Filippo Argenti and Farinata), but here he really criticizes Pope Nicholas III and the other Simonists. He is aware that Simony is a really horrible sin.

Dante speaks, sarcastically, to this Pope:

I do not know if I were here too bold,

That him I answered only in this metre:

“I pray thee tell me now how great a treasure

Our Lord demanded of Saint Peter first,

Before he put the keys into his keeping?

Truly he nothing asked but ‘Follow me.’

Nor Peter nor the rest asked of Matthias

Silver or gold, when he by lot was chosen

Unto the place the guilty soul had lost.”

(Longfellow 19.88-96)

Jesus did not use Simony is choosing his apostles, and popes ought not to use Simony in awarding church offices.

We also have a reference to the Acts of the Apostles. After Judas, who was bribed with 30 pieces of silver, killed himself, he had to be replaced. Peter and the remaining apostles did not use Simony in choosing his successor.

Dante wants Pope Nicholas III to “stay stuck here” (Musa, Inferno19.97).

  • What are the consequences of Simony?

Why would someone want to buy a church office? Presumably, they would look at it as an investment. They would be paying money to gain power and perhaps to get more money. However, are these the people who should be in church offices? Do we want a Pope who bought his way into that position? The answer is no. We would prefer someone who deserves the position through his own merit. We would prefer a meritocracy to a plutocracy.

The trouble with Simony is that the people who deserve church offices because of their merit don’t get them for these reasons: Either they don’t have the money to buy the church office, or they do have the money but won’t buy the church office because they know that Simony is wrong.

Of course, Simony affects society as a whole. Pope Boniface VIII will end up here in Hell because of his Simony. Of course, his use of Simony gave him access to power and money and soldiers that he would not otherwise have had. Because of Simony, he was able to use his resources to get Dante and the other White Guelfs exiled from Florence.

  • Is Dante doing the right thing when he so severely criticizes the Simonists?

Dante does exactly the right thing here when he so severely criticizes the Simonists. He finally seems to know that God does not make mistakes when He places unrepentant sinners in the Inferno. These people deserve exactly what they get.

Dante says,

“Ye have made yourselves a god of gold and silver;

And from the idolater how differ ye,

Save that he one, and ye a hundred worship?”

(Longfellow 19.112-114)

Pope Nicholas III and Pope Boniface VIII worshipped gold and silver instead of God and so they end up in the Inferno for eternity.

  • Who was Constantine? What is the Donation of Constantine?

We see another apostrophe when Dante the Pilgrim addresses Constantine, who is not here in the Inferno:

“O Constantine, what did you sire,

not by your conversion, but by the dower

that the first wealthy father got from you!”

(Musa 19.115-117)

Constantine was the first Christian Roman emperor. When he moved from Rome to the city of Constantinople, he supposedly gave an awful lot of power and material possessions to the Pope. The medieval belief was that Constantine deliberately moved East in order to reward Pope Sylvester with power and possessions because Pope Sylvester had cured him of leprosy. Dante believes that this Donation of Constantinople corrupted many Popes and the Church.

Actually, the so-called Donation of Constantine turned out to be a forgery, but this was proven long after Dante’s day; in the 15thcentury, the so-called Donation of Constantine was proven to be a forgery.

  • In Dante’s Divine Comedy, what determines whether a person ought to be punished or rewarded?

Constantine does appear in The Divine Comedy, but he appears in Paradise, not in Inferno. He made a donation that caused a lot of corruption in the Church, so Dante believed, yet he is in Heaven. Why?

What gets you in Heaven — in Constantine’s case, at least — is your motivation, not the consequences of your actions. Constantine meant to do good, not evil, with his Donation, so this act helps get him into Heaven. Sometimes it is difficult to accurately predict the consequences of our actions.

Is it always true that motives get you into Heaven? Because I don’t know the mind of God, I don’t know the answer to that question. One proverb is that the path to Hell is paved with good intentions, but I don’t know whether that proverb is true. I do know that both motives and consequences are important. Constantine wanted to do the right thing by donating money to the papacy, but he ended up doing a great deal of harm, in Dante’s opinion. However, Constantine ends up in Heaven.

But what if someone sincerely opposes abortion and sincerely believes that killing doctors who perform abortions is the right thing to do? Or what if someone sincerely opposes the pro-life protesters and sincerely believes that killing pro-life protesters is the right thing to do?

In real life, sometimes consequences are very important and sometimes motives are very important. As far as who gets into Heaven or Hell, I will leave that to God.

  • Is Dante the Pilgrim learning anything in the Inferno?

Yes, he is learning the things that Dante the Poet knows. Both the Poet and the Pilgrim are bothered by Simony and the corruption of the Church.

In addition, Dante the Poet — the older, wiser Dante the Pilgrim — approves of the design of the Inferno. In an apostrophe to Highest Wisdom, he says:

Wisdom supreme, O how great art thou showest

In heaven, in earth, and in the evil world,

And with what justice doth thy power distribute!

(Longfellow 19.10-12)

  • How does Virgil show that he is pleased with Dante’s progress?

Virgil is pleased with Dante. Dante is angry at the Simonists, and Virgil is very happy that Dante is angry at the Simonists. We read:

I think in sooth that it my Leader pleased,

With such contented lip he listened ever

Unto the sound of the true words expressed.

(Longfellow 19.121-123)

In addition, Virgil picks up Dante and carries him up out of the bolgia. When he does this, he holds Dante against his breast (Musa, Inferno19.125). Previously, when he carried Dante down into the bolgia, he had held Dante against his side (Musa, Inferno19.43). Holding Dante against his breast, as in a hug, may show that Virgil is very pleased with Dante.

By the way, great strength and sure-footedness are other of Virgil’s supernatural abilities, in addition to his ability to know the position of the stars and the planets and his ability to read Dante’s mind.


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Robert Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay: A Retelling



The Taming of a Shrew: A Retelling




Tarlton’s Jests: A Retelling



The Trojan War and Its Aftermath: Four Ancient Epic Poems


Virgil’s Aeneid: A Retelling in Prose 




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William Shakespeare’s 5 Late Romances: Retellings in Prose 


William Shakespeare’s 10 Histories: Retellings in Prose 


William Shakespeare’s 11 Tragedies: Retellings in Prose 


William Shakespeare’s 12 Comedies: Retellings in Prose


William Shakespeare’s 38 Plays: Retellings in Prose 


William Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV, aka Henry IV, Part 1: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s 2 Henry IV, aka Henry IV, Part 2: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s 1 Henry VI, aka Henry VI, Part 1: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s 2 Henry VI, aka Henry VI, Part 2: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s 3 Henry VI, aka Henry VI, Part 3: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s As You Like It: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s Hamlet: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s Henry V: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s Henry VIII: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s King John: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s King Lear: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s Macbeth: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s Othello: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s Richard II: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s Richard III: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s The Tempest: A Retelling in Prose 




William Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s The Two Noble Kinsmen: A Retelling in Prose 



William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale: A Retelling in Prose 



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