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Sample Research Paper on Dante’s Inferno

Having to write a term paper on Dante’s Inferno can be a daunting task. It requires careful reading of the original source and then a critical analysis of what it all means. The original work is quite long and tough to read since it was written many hundreds of years ago. That is why it is a good consideration to buy a model research paper on Dante’s Inferno and save yourself much time and frustration. Here, you will find a great paper that highlights how the work was all about following Christian doctrine of ethics at the time, as set forth by the Church. This sample is provided by Ultius, the trusted provider of content solutions for consumers around the world.

Dante’s Inferno and the Medieval Penal Code

Throughout history, penal systems have been used to both deter potential criminals through fear and to display the pure power of authority figures. During the medieval times (circa 500 AD to 1400AD) in Europe, Judeo-Christian church doctrine was also influential as sin and punishment was directly related to heaven, hell and divine justice. In relation, Dante Alighieri takes us through a journey of hell to get a closer look at what that experience was like in is epic work. In offering extraordinary detail into many diverse aspects of punishment, sin, severity and the overall experience, Dante’s Inferno works a great reference for comparing and contrasting the penal code of the middle-ages to how Dante described it. By specifically using cantos V, XII, XVI, we can see some clear similarities as well as sharp differences. Dante’s inferno effectively epitomized the medieval code with regards to tit-for-tat punishment and brutality; however, the application of Christian doctrine was partially accurate and further accounted for by early Roman traditions.

In analyzing the Cantos with respect to the medieval penal code, it will be important to first review what that code entailed. Debora Shuger (2008) explains that tit-for-tat punishment that was extremely brutal was very common. Pain was also very important because it represented both Greek notions of reciprocal reactions and isolation of body parts responsible for the crime (Myers, 2003; Olson, 2006). Moreover, as the Christian church held prominence, the penal system was heavily influenced by what the church thought was appropriate (Shuger, 2008; Reade, 2004). However, it is important to also note that the Christian influence also included penance. Forgiveness and acceptance were as important as the actual crime itself (Olson, 2006).

Organizational Structure of Research Paper on Dante’s Inferno

In discussing Canto V, evidence will show that the penal aspect of judgment and punishment based on relevance of the crime was extremely similar to the medieval penal code. The same principles of equivocal punishment based on the nature of the crime applied within this context. Canto XII will aid our discussion similarly by offering another example of tit-for-tat punishment. Finally, the majority of our discourse will focus on Canto XI and the application of Christian doctrine.  Evidence from Allen Mandelbaum (1998) and W. H. V. Reade (2004) will show that the penal code does not strictly utilize Christian doctrine; instead, the penal code is a compilation of some Roman legal traditions, scholastic insight and some Christian doctrine.

Analysis of Medeival Penal Code

In The Reformation of Penance, Shuger described the medieval penal code in terms of equivocal punishment, the relation of debt to guilt and finally the value of penance. Typically, the punishment fit the crime in terms of how the act was carried out. Shuger remarked that “a key feature of this medieval penitential system is that the object of punishment is the specific sinful act” (Shuger, 560). That is, if the perpetrator stole with his hands, then he risked having it cut off. This not only made sure that the offender wouldn’t repeat the same exact crime, but it also reflected the crime to the rest of society.

Moreover, using this punishment system also meant that the punishment fit the crime equally since “each sin incurs a fixed debt” that needed to be paid back (Shuger, 560). Jean Godsall-Myers, in “Speaking in the Medieval World” also mentioned that “the organs or parts involved were treated as being responsible rather than the person themselves” (Myers, 39). It was thus seen as a fair means of punishing people. Finally, it is noteworthy to note that this research paper mentioned how forgiveness was also part of the penal code. Since often times the social aspect of displaying power was more important than the act, instances like “royal pardons, the privilege of sanctuary, and the high acquittal rate of the English jury” were quite common (Olson, 2006). Therefore, the medieval penal system was not as radical and ruthless as offenders had some opportunity to escape punishment.

Indeed, religion played an important element in the penal system as well. The concept of divine justice is very important because it related to facing final judgment before God. Since “one’s past acts (the virtuous, or sinful, accretions of a life) provided the basis for divine judgment,” sinning on earth had to be repaid as a means of eventually getting into heaven. However, the importance of penance and repentance is also critical to the application of Christian doctrine within the medieval penal code. According to Shuger, “penances are understood as retribution for violations of divine justice; that is, their purpose is not to heal or purify the sinful soul but to punish it for having sinned” (559). While divine justice was carried out with brutality, forgiveness and acceptance of human flaws was also taken into context. Christian doctrine included repentance as well. Final judgment would not merely entail being punished for the negative actions; instead both the positive and negative actions would result in an ultimate sum.

Sinners Being Tormented in the Circles of Hell

In Canto V, Dante watched as lustful sinners were being tormented for their sins.  From the opening lines, the theme of judgment is present: “I mean that when the spirit born to evil appears before him, it confesses all; and he, the connoisseur of sin, can tell the depth in Hell appropriate to it” (Mandelbaum, V 9-10). This relates to the judgment portion where the person is sent to a specific part of hell depending on their sins. Moreover, the guide also indicated that “always there is a crowd that stands before him” (Mandelbaum, V 13). This means that as the person awaits final judgment, he is subject to scrutiny of all of the bystanders. The relationship between the medieval penal system and this scene is extraordinarily accurate. As the severity of the punishment is relevant to the crime in the real world, it is this way in Hell as well. This research paper noted how the sinner is punished equivocally. Moreover, in depicting a scene where a crowd is watching, this Canto similarly depicted scenes of public medieval trials that were a spectacle more than a formal procedure. Thus, in terms of the judgment procedure, this Canto related very well to the medieval code.

Moreover, Canto V also illuminated the tit-for-tat punishment style as did the medieval code. Since the sinners in this Canto were sent there for “sins of love and misuse,” they were subject to similar punishments (Mandelbaum, V 103). This shows evidence of organization and standardization within hell. The punishment is categorized for a specific sin and everyone is given their own individual taste of it. This relates almost equally to how swearing or committing blasphemy in the medieval world was subject to the removal of the tongue (Godsall-Myers, 39). In implementing a punishment that fit the crime, both the Hell described by Dante and the actual penal code worked in unison. As the guide in Hell remarked, “there is no greater sorrow than thinking back on a happy time in misery” (Mandelbaum, V 121-123). Thus, punishing the lustful sinners based on their specific actions is very clear. The punishment surely fit the crime on both Dante’s experience as well as the actual medieval penal code (albeit in different contexts of reality versus the supernatural).

Canto XII also had the same tit-for-tat punishment style that was relevant for the context for the crime. Within this scene, Dante and Virgil descended towards Ring 1 where sinners committed violence towards others. This included sinners like murderers who committed bodily harm to other people. As the Centaur who was guiding Dante remarked, “these are the tyrants who plunged their hands in blood and plundering” (Mandelbaum, XII 103-105). These sinners were dipped in boiling blood to compensate for the blood they shed on their fellow neighbor. Again, the theme of punishing bloodshed within a relevant context, boiling blood, reflects the notion of equivocal penance for their sins. As Olson (2006) similarly argued, pain did have a critical role in the medieval penal system (63). Bodily pain was a relevant punishment in the medieval context because it reflected the severity of the crime. Within Canto XII, we see the same expression of punishment as well.

Partial Application of Christian Doctrine to Medeival Penal Code

Within Canto XI, however, the classification of punishment and reasoning do not relate to a single aspect of the medieval system; instead, some application of Christian doctrine is applied while others are not.  Within this Canto, a robust classification system for sinners is offered. The sins are classified as being either under force or fraud: “of every malice that wins hate in Heaven, Injury is the end; and all such end Either by force or fraud afflicteth others” (Mandelbaum, XI 22-23). The firs ring is devoted exclusively to the murderers, plunderers and robbers (Mandelbaum, XI 37-38). This is characterized as a sub-human (animal) crime on the grounds that it entails physical brutality.

Overall, the punishment for this type of crime is not as severe as crime of fraud, which will be discussed later. This crime is classified as less serious because “the use of force is characteristic of beasts” (Mandelbaum et al, 152). Consequently, this lower order crime is punishable by physical torment that is equal to the sin that was committed. Thus, the classification of crimes and punishment based on the wrong that was committed epitomizes the tit-for-tat punishment of the medieval ages. This aspect of punishment accurately reflected the implementation of the medieval penal code and fits in line with how influential Christianity was during the time period.

However, crimes of fraud are classified and inherently treated differently. Within Canto XI, “fraud, that eats away at every conscience, is practiced by a man against another who trusts in him, or one who has no trust” (Mandelbaum, XI 52-54). This higher order crime entails a much more serious sin that “cuts off the bond of love that nature forged” (Mandelbaum, XI 52-54). This crime is inherently punished much more severely in a separate depth of hell. Mandelbaum explained that “fraud is more repugnant to God than violence because it is specifically characteristic of humans” (151). This gives much more substance to the terms malice and injustice. Since malice is considered “fully responsible evil behavior,” it is only appropriate that God would carry a much more ruthless punishment (Mandelbaum et al, 158). Indeed, this is further evidence of tit-for-tat punishment. By carefully breaking down and explaining specific scenarios where certain punishments apply, Canto XII accurately portrays both the level of specificity for the crime as well as the punishment.

The Religious Context of Dante’s Inferno

The integration of church related doctrine becomes problematic when we take the religious setting into context. Obviously, the concepts of Hell, torment, sin and divine justice are all relevant to Christian teachings. The medieval penal system, however, does not fully include all of the aspects of punishment that are mentioned in the Canto. For instance, as Virgil noted that “malice earns hate in heaven,” it is important to note that “this hate has strong biblical warrants” (Mandelbaum, 152). This would imply that the Canto’s distinction between fraud and force rooted sins are based on biblical support. However, as Mandelbaum et al clearly argued, “nowhere in the main traditional sources, Aristotle, Roman law, or the Christian moral tradition is it held that all fraud is more serious than all violence” (152).

Drawing on the author’s interpretation that this Canto is influenced by the sources listed thus suggests that this distinction is not just false, but non-existent altogether. The notion that fraud and trust represent the most vital sin is not supported by Christian doctrine or the medieval penal system. Consequently, Dante’s selective inclusion and characterization of sins meets the medieval penal code criteria of tit-for-tat punishment, but not religious accuracy. This important distinction is one of the most striking differences between the medieval penal code and Canto XI.

Another critical aspect of Christian doctrine that was neglected from the Canto was the medieval penal system aspect of repentance. Nowhere in the Canto is any evidence of forgiveness or repentance. As Reade (2004) lamented, “if we impute such a doctrine to the author of the Divine Comedy, or indeed to anyone acquainted with the rudiments of Christian teaching, we are, surely, forgetting the most simple facts in the doctrine of sin” (9). That is, in neglecting repentance, the basic teachings of sin are not accurate according to the church. For instance, in the medieval setting, offenders could escape damnation by paying fines, submitting to voluntary exile or promised pilgrimage that would lead to eventual salvation (Olson, 63). Moreover, the role of the heretics within the Canto are also neglected. Reade also remarked that “Virgil, though resting at the time in the actual region of the heretics, says not a word about the moral status of farinata and his companions, but omits altogether to explain their relation to the general scheme of Hell” (12).

Since heresy was a highly relevant and serious Christian teaching, we see further evidence of the Canto’s religious inaccuracy. In not mentioning the heretics, Virgil selectively used religious doctrine to explain the structure of hell. Furthermore, this debunks the overall classification of sins altogether: “why should some sins be irrevocably stamped as malicious and others definitely scribed as incontinence” (Reade, 12). Indeed, this prompts us to look for other sources of influence that may or may not be related to the medieval penal code. Luckily, other influences that are relevant to the medieval penal system do apply.

Roman Legal Traditions and Dante’s Inferno

The intertwining Roman legal traditions and scholastic insight are both sources of influence for this Canto. In being careful and selective about how sin and punishment was classified, the work of Aristotle and Cicero were influential. The distinction between lower order (animal/force) and higher order (fraud) becomes much more relevant within the context of Aristotle and Cicero. Aristotle, in Politics, did indeed argue that “political man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but when unlawful and unjust he is the worst of all” (Mandelbaum, 162). Taken into account that man has the ability to speak, “man may thus become a most unholy and savage being” (Mandelbaum, 162). Here, the relationship between the Canto’s religious reference and early Roman influence is much clearer.

The author of Inferno utilized both of these sources in classifying the different types of crimes and punishments inherent in Canto XI. In relation, this explains why the religious accuracy of force and crime is not present. Consequently, the religious context of the medieval penal code is not fully accurate, but it does reflect other medieval influences of justice. Since Greek and Roman philosophers like Cicero and Aristotle were integral in the development of the medieval justice system, the philosophical and inherited context within philosophy does accurately reflect the penal code. However, given the religious setting of Hell, the overall connection between the medieval penal system and Canto XI is ultimately compromised. Therefore, Roman legal traditions account for the religious inaccuracy of force and fraud in classifying sins.

The natural virtues regarding crimes of fraud also relate to medieval notions of justice according to Cicero. Within Canto XI, there is special attention paid to the veracity of such a crime and why it is important. The reasoning provided by Virgil is that is breaks the natural order of justice that was designed by God. While this reasoning was not found in Christian doctrine, Cicero’s De invention does play a role in explaining the relevance. For instance, Cicero’s work reflected virtues that were accepted in the middle ages as being justice. The first was “religio, religion in the sense of reverence for and worship of a being humanity recognizes as divine” (Mandelbaum et al, 160). Furthermore, virtues such as truthfulness with other people, sacred respect of dignity and piety also applied (Mandelbaum et al, 160). These are the same virtues that characterized sinners in Canto XI. However, simply because they are in a religious context in the Canto and neglected from accuracy within Christian doctrine does not directly conclude that it did not relate to the medieval penal system. In fact, the work of Cicero was directly related to the development of the medieval penal code through the virtues and standard decorum of individuals. Consequently, the evidence suggests that Canto XI’s description of the sins and classifications do still apply to the medieval context of justice, just not directly to the religious context.


While all three of the Cantos accurately portrayed the medieval penal code with regard to equivocal punishment and brutality, the religious context was not fully accurate. Instead, the core religious distinction of the types of sins is heavily attributed to the early work of Cicero and Aristotle. These works and principles, however, are still relevant under the context of the medieval penal code. The penal code reflected that punishment was a sinful act that needed to be paid back with equal punishment that was fit for the crime. In this case, the actual organs or parts of the body involved with the sin were punished individually, rather than the whole person. Religious influence also played a part in the medieval penal code because the church was an overwhelming influence.

As Canto V, XI and XII showed, tit-for-tat punishment was consistent with the crime just as it was in medieval times. Within Canto XI, however, the application of the religious context was not fully accurate. The distinction between crimes of fraud and force are not supported by religious tradition. Instead, there is evidence from both Cicero and Aristotle that the medieval justice system was influenced by these early Roman philosophers. Consequently, Canto XI did accurately represent the medieval penal code, albeit not fully in the religious context.

Works Cited

Godsall-Myers, Jean. Speaking in the medieval world . Netherlands: Brill Academic Pub, 2003. Print.

Mandelbaum, Allen. Inferno. New York: Bantam Dell, 1980. Print.

Mandelbaum, Allen, Anthony Oldcorn, and Charles  Ross. Lectura Dantis: Inferno: A Canto-by-Canto Commentary. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998. Print.

Olson, Trisha. “The Medieval Blood Sanction and the Divine Beneficence of Pain: 1100-1450.” Journal of Law and Religion, 22.1 (2006): 63-129. JSTOR. Web. 26 Apr. 2011.

Reade, W. H. V.. The Moral System of Dante’s Inferno. Oxford: Kessinger Publishers, 2004. Print.

Shuger, Debora. “The Reformation of Penance.” huntington library quarterly 71.4 (2008): 557-571. Print.

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