I’ve been reading the French-language series of historical novels Le Rois Maudits, which is excellent (and promoted in English version by George RR Martin: “This is the original Game of Thrones!”). In the third volume, “The Poisoned Crown,” Dante Alighieri, that bad, bad propagandist has an interesting appearance. Not as a character, mind you. Sadly, Dante was an old man out of big events by the time Le Roi de Fer (the first volume of the series) starts, and there’s little action set in Italy in these books anyway, as they narrate the downfall of the French Capet dynasty. Dante’s role in The Poisoned Crown is mostly relegated to the notes included in the text by author Maurice Druon, a rare case of a mid-20th century French writer who seems to have had no role or ties whatsoever with the Vichy regime.
Dante is singled out in The Poisoned Crown as responsible for a popular conspiracy theory of the 14th century. Building up on a troubadour song about Hughes Capet, the founder of the Capet dynasty in the 10th century, in “Purgatorio” Dante spread the legend that France’s ruling family were descendants of a rich Paris butcher; his scholarship was terrible: he conflates the first two Capets into one, all in the interest of scoring cheap political points against his later French enemies. Druon writes in a note:
As a matter of fact, Hugues Capet was descended from the house of the Dukes of France. Dante accuses Hugues Capet of having deposed the legitimate heir and imprisoned him in a monastery. This is a confusion between the end of the Merovingians and the end of the Carolingians; it was in fact the last king of the first dynasty, Chilperic III, who was shut up in a monastery. The last legitimate descendant of Charlemagne, at the death of Louis V, the Sluggard, was Duke Charles of Lorraine, who wished to claim the throne from Hugues Capet; but it was not in a monastery that the Duke of Lorraine met his end, but in a prison into which he had been thrown by his rival. When, in the sixteenth century, Francis I had the ‘Divine Comedy’ read to him upon the advice of his sister, and heard the passage concerning the Capets, he interrupted the reader, crying: ‘Oh, the wicked poet who traduces my House!’ and refused to listen to any more.
Dante accused Charles of Anjou, the brother of Saint Louis (the grandfather of the great Philip the Fair, “le Roi de Fer” who reigns in France at the start of the series), not only of having assassinated the legitimate heir to the throne of Naples, but also of having poisoned Saint Thomas Aquinas. Dante didn’t like the Capets one bit; at one point in the text, the Count of Poitiers (Philip the Fair’s second son, also named Philip, who will briefly become a King after the death of his eldest brother Louis) is depicted by Druon as discussing Dante’s works with courtiers, tongue-in-cheek:
‘Our cousins of Anjou are well peppered,’ said the Count of Poitiers in a low voice.
But the French prince whom Dante attacked with the greatest violence, for whom he reserved his worst curses, was another Charles, who had gone to ravage Florence and had pierced it in the stomach, the poet wrote, ‘with the lance with which he fought Judas’.
‘Ah, that’s my Uncle Charles of Valois he’s talking of there!’ Poitiers cried. ‘That’s why he’s so vindictive. My uncle seems to have made us a lot of friends in Italy.’
The next note explains Dante’s hatred of the Capets, which is of course related to the actions of Charles de Valois, the younger brother of Philip the Fair who is one of the greatest characters of Les Rois Maudits, and who obviously seen as Druon as one of the main reasons for the downfall of the Capet dynasty, partly because of his role in destroying Enguerrand de Marigny, Philip de Fair’s main minister:
Charles of Valois had been sent into Tuscany to ‘pacify’ Florence, which at that time was torn by the dissensions between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. In fact, having entered the town on November 1st, 1301, Charles of Valois surrendered it to the vengeance of the partisans of the Pope. Pillage and massacre continued for five days on end. They were followed by the decrees of banishment. Dante, a notorious Ghibelline and the inspirer of the resistance, had been a member, the preceding summer, of the Seigneurial Council; then, having been sent as Ambassador to Rome, he had been held there as a hostage. He was condemned by a Florentine Tribunal, on January 27, 1302, to two years’ exile and five thousand pounds fine, on the false accusation of political deviation in the execution of his duties. On March 10th a new case was brought against him and he was this time condemned to be burnt alive. Luckily for him he was not in Florence nor in Rome from which he had managed to escape; but he was never to see his fatherland again. One can well understand that he preserved towards Charles of Valois and, by extension, all the French princes, a stubborn hostility. Moreover, it may be noted that there was a singular resemblance between the case brought against Dante and that brought against Enguerrand de Marigny on the instigation of Charles of Valois, thirteen years later. In the false accusations concerning financial dealings, two separate prosecutions and convictions for a multiplicity of crimes, the same type of proceedings can be discovered, and in them the hand of Charles of Valois may be recognized.
That’s the thing with La Divina Commedia: one sees all those people burning in Hell or enjoying Paradise, and to our modern eyes they look like archetypes or lost, peripheral figures in Dante’s great oeuvre, when in reality to Dante they, and the political scores settled with them, were the point of his writings.