David Bruce: Dante’s INFERNO: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 28: The Schismatics”

“Canto 28: The Schismatics”

  • What does “schism” mean? 

A schism is a break. It is especially a break within a church, as between Catholics and Protestants, or between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, or between Islam and Christianity. However, a schism can also occur in politics, as when rival, hate-filled political parties are formed, or within families, as when a son and a father hate each other.

  • Why does Danto begin this canto by referring to so many battles that had taken place in the southeastern section of the Italian peninsula?

The battles Dante mentions were bloody, and many, many soldiers suffered horrible wounds. In the 9thbolgia, the Schismatics are punished with bloody wounds. The many bloody and wounded Schismatics are like the many bloody and wounded soldiers following a battle.

Dante refers to “great spoils of golden rings” (Musa, Inferno28.11) when he is mentioning bloody battles. During the Second Punic War, the Carthaginian general Hannibal crossed the Alps (with war elephants!) and invaded Italy. He had much early success in the war, although the Romans eventually won. One of his greatest successes was at the Battle of Cannae. So many Roman soldiers were killed that the Roman historian Livy related that the Carthaginian soldiers gathered three bushels of gold rings from the fingers of the dead Roman soldiers.

  • What is the punishment given to the creators of schism, and why is it fitting? 

In the 9thbolgia are punished those who caused divisions, whether within religions or within politics or within families. These sinners caused splits in religions, politics, or families, and they are punished by being slit by a devil with a sword.

Sowers of Religious Discord

Dante believed that Muhammad and Ali, the founders of Islam, caused a schism within the Christian Church by having Islam break away from Christianity. Because of this, these two Schismatics are punished by being slit with a sword wielded by a devil. (Please note that Dante uses the name “Mahomet” for Muhammad.)

Sowers of Political Discord

Sowers of political discord are also punished here. These sinners include Curio, who advised Julius Caesar to cross the Rubicon River into Italy, although the Roman Senate had forbade him to do that. This action by Julius Caesar started the Roman Civil War. Also punished here is Mosca dei Lamberti, who contributed to the development of the Guelf and the Ghibelline factions in Florence.

Sowers of Familial Discord

Bertran de Born caused a son to rebel against his father; therefore, his punishment is to have his head chopped off, a punishment he calls “the perfect contrapasso” (Musa, Inferno28.142). This is the only place in the epic poem that Dante uses this word.

These sinners slowly heal as they walk around the Circle. They are fully healed by the time they reach the devil, who slits them again.

  • Who are Muhammad and Ali? Why did Dante put them in the ninth bolgia of Circle 8?

The Infernois not popular with Muslims because of this canto. Dante believed that Muhammad caused a split in an old religion (Christianity) — according to Dante, Muhammad did not start a new religion (Islam).

Muhammad is the prophet of Allah, and Muhammad started the Muslim religion. Ali is his son-in-law, and when Muhammad died, Ali wanted to become the head of Islam. Some people accepted him — this group became the first Shiites. Other people did not — this group became the first Sunnis. We see this factionalism running its course in Iraq today.

Muhammad is split from the chin to his anus. His intestines are hanging out. Dante occasionally uses low language in the Inferno, as it is suitable for Hell, and he does that here as he writes about Mahomet’s (Muhammad’s) wounds:

No wine cask with its stave or cant-bar sprung

was ever split the way I saw someone

ripped open from his chin to where we fart.

Between his legs his guts spilled out, with the heart

And other vital parts, and the dirty sack

That turns to shit whatever the mouth gulps down. 

(Musa 28.22-27)

Ali’s head is split from chin to brow — this wound is what caused the death of his mortal body. He was mortally wounded while praying.

Here we see some of the bathroom language that occasionally appears in the Inferno, where such language is appropriate.

  • Where do we see Muslims in the Inferno?

In Limbo, Dante placed some great Muslims who contributed great knowledge to the world. Here, as we can see, he puts Muhammad and Ali in Hell. In the City of Dis (where the Heretics are buried) are flaming mosques.

  • Should Muslims read The Divine Comedy?

The Divine Comedywas not translated into Arabic until the 20thcentury; frequently, the references to Muhammad and to Ali are left out.

Note: If I were Muslim, I would say, “Peace be upon him,” each time I spoke the word “Muhammad” or referred to “the Prophet,” meaning of course Muhammad. I would do the same thing when writing about Muhammad, aka the Prophet.

Hesham A. Hassaballa wrote, “Yet, the Prophet (peace be upon him) once said that wisdom is the ‘lost animal’ of the believer: wherever it may be, he should seek it.” (Source: Hesham A. Hassaballa, “Finding the ‘Light in Your Eyes’: How Sheryl Crow brought me closer to Allah.” 2006 <http://www.beliefnet.com/story/161/story_16175.html>.)

In my opinion, a Muslim can read The Divine Comedyfor whatever wisdom it contains and reject the parts that do not contain wisdom. (I enjoy reading The Divine Comedy, yet I would not put gay people in Hell.)

  • What is Muhammad like in the Inferno?

Muhammad is an interesting character in the Inferno. He is not rebellious as were Capaneus and Jason. In fact, he seems helpful. He readily explains to Dante the Pilgrim what type of sin is punished in this bolgia, and he asks Dante to give a warning to a man who is still living:

“Now say to Fra Dolcino, then, to arm him,

Thou, who perhaps wilt shortly see the sun,

If soon he wish not here to follow me,

So with provisions, that no stress of snow

May give the victory to the Novarese,

Which otherwise to gain would not be easy.”           

(Longfellow 28.55-60)

Fra Dolcino was a heretic who in 1307 was burned at the stake. Pope Clement V opposed him, and Fra Dolcino hid out in some hills near Novaro. He and his followers ran out of food, and the forces of the Pope were able to capture him and burn him at the stake.

  • Who are some of the other sinners in this part of the Circle?

Pier da Medicina

Mark Musa points out that early commentators on the Infernoidentify Pier of Medicina as fomenting discord between two families: the Polenta family and the Malatesta family (Musa, Inferno331).


Curio’s tongue is cut out each time he completes a journey around the Circle. Curio urged Julius Caesar (who is in Limbo) to cross the Rubicon River, thus starting civil war among the Romans. When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River, he said, “Thus the die is cast,” meaning that there was no turning back now, as he had disobeyed the orders of the Roman Senate.

Mosca dei Lamberti

Mosca started the split of Florentines into rival Ghibelline and Guelf factions. Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti was engaged to be married to the daughter of Lambertuccio degli Amidei, but when a better offer came along — Aldruda, a member of the Donati family, offered him her daughter — he took it. Although Aldruda offered to pay the expenses of the broken engagement, this was a major insult to the family of the jilted bride, and Mosca advised that Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti be killed. After he was killed, the two factions of the Guelfs and the Ghibellines began.

Bertran de Born

Bertran de Born carries his head like a lantern. He is the sinner who says that his punishment is the perfect contrapasso. Of course, a good definition of contrapassois that of Mark Musa: “the law of divine retribution” (Musa, Inferno333). Dante believed that Bertran de Born had urged Prince Henry of England (1155-83) to rebel against his father, who was King Henry II. Thus, he had urged the son of a family to rebel against its head, and so Bertran de Born’s head is cut off each time he completes a journey around the Circle.

  • What are the sinners in Canto 28 like?

We have already seen that Muhammad is helpful to Dante and wants to give a warning to a living man. Another Schismatic, Pier da Medicina, also warns Dante to convey a warning to two men living in 1300 — Messer Guido and Angiolello, both of Fano — about a plot to murder them.

In addition, none of the Schismatics seem to rebel against their fate. Even Bertrand de Born, who is decapitated each time he completes his journey around the Circle, does not protest against his fate.

These sinners may have died unrepentant, but perhaps they have learned something during their stay — which Dante apparently regards as eternal — in the Inferno. This, however, is most likely incorrect. Unrepentant sinners must stay unrepentant; otherwise, they would not deserve to be in the Inferno. Of course, sinners in the Inferno regret having been caught in their sins, and they regret being punished for their sins, but that is not the same thing as true repentance.

  • Do any sinners in the 9thbolgia of Circle 8 want to be remembered on Earth?

Remarkably, the sinners who are punished in the 9thbolgia of Circle 8 seem to want to be remembered on Earth. None of these sinners seems to want to keep his name from Dante and Virgil. All of them are forthcoming with information, except for the sinner (Curio) whose tongue is cut off and so he cannot speak (Musa, Inferno28.96).

Pier da Medicina, called by an early commentator (Benvenuto da Imola) a sower of discord between two families, the Polenta and the Malatesta families (Musa 331), wants to be remembered by Dante should Dante return to the living world:

“Call to remembrance Pier da Medicina,

If e’er thou see again the lovely plain

That from Vercelli slopes to Marcabo,”

(Longfellow 28.73-75)

Bertran de Born, who encouraged Prince Henry to rebel against his father, King Henry II of England, wants to be remembered on Earth. He tells Dante:

“And so that thou may carry news of me,

Know that Bertram de Born am I, the same

Who gave to the Young King the evil comfort.”

(Longfellow 28.133-135)

  • Does Canto 28 have a problem?

Problems in literature can be interesting. In this canto, I, the writer of this commentary on the Inferno, see the sinners as being helpful to Dante and as being helpful in warning other sinners on earth to beware of not changing their ways or to beware of treachery. In addition, it is interesting that these sinners want to be remembered on Earth, although they are very deep in the Inferno. I find these things puzzling.

When something is puzzling in a work of literature, that thing can become the subject of a very interesting essay. Of course, one possible explanation is that I am reading the canto incorrectly. Other sinners have wanted to be remembered on Earth, so perhaps these sinners wanting to remembered on unearth is not a problem. Other sinners have made predictions, and these predictions came true, so perhaps the warnings these sinners make may actually be simple predictions rather than warnings.

These sinners know the future, and so they know that what they predict will occur. What seem like specific warnings may not be really be warnings, but only predictions.

One guiding rule of interpreting the Infernois that God does not make mistakes — the sinners who are punished in the Inferno deserve to be punished there. That applies to Francesca da Rimini in Circle 2, and it applies to the Schismatics who are punished in the 9thbolgia of Circle 8.

John Ciardi writes, “The souls of the damned are not permitted to repent, for repentance is a divine grace” (Ciardi, The Divine Comedy, 36).

The answer to the problem may be that Dante respects these sinners, and therefore he treats them well. He believes that they have sinned and that they deserve to be in Hell, but he still respects them as individuals. We can definitively make a case that Dante respects the poetry of Bertran de Born. We have seen that Dante is not anti-Semitic. Perhaps he respects Muslims as individuals, and perhaps he respects the founder of Islam as an individual. We have seen that both Dante and Virgil respected some of the Sodomites.

Or perhaps sowing Schism is such a bad sin that those who committed that sin have to be aware of its evil. After all, Pope Nicholas III was aware that Simony is a bad sin.

  • What can Dante learn from the Schismatics?

Of course, Dante is undertaking this journey through the afterlife in order to learn something — specifically, he wants to learn how to avoid ending up in the Inferno and instead gain a place in Paradise.

What can he learn from the Schismatics? He can learn mainly to avoid destructive factionalism. This, of course, is something that he has been learning throughout his journey through the Inferno.

We do see that Dante realizes the destructiveness of factionalism in how he speaks to Mosca, who caused the factionalism between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, a schism that greatly harmed Florence. When Mosca identifies himself, Dante replies to him harshly:

Cried out: “Thou shalt remember Mosca also,

Who said, alas! ‘A thing done has an end!’

Which was an ill seed for the Tuscan people.”

“And death unto thy race,” thereto I added;

(Longfellow 28.106-109)       

In the Inferno, Dante starts out naïve and he ends up smart. We can see that he learns many important lessons as he continues his journey.

As we will see in Dante’s Purgatoryand Paradise, Dante becomes very intelligent indeed. In the Paradise, we will see that Dante will be saved. After he dies, he will go to Eternal Paradise.

  • In speaking with Muhammad, Virgil explains his purpose as a guide for Dante the Pilgrim (Musa, Inferno28.46-51).

In Canto 28, Virgil describes his purpose as a guide for Dante the Pilgrim.

Virgil tells Muhammad about Dante the Pilgrim:

“Nor death hath reached him yet, nor guilt doth bring him,”

My Master made reply, “to be tormented;

But to procure him full experience,

Me, who am dead, behoves it to conduct him

Down here through Hell, from circle unto circle;

And this is true as that I speak to thee.”       

(Longfellow 28.46-51)

Virgil’s purpose is to educate Dante by taking him on a journey through the Inferno, and later, as we will find out, up the Mountain of Purgatory.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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