Dante’s Purgatorio – Canto 20

Dante feels bad that he could not have spent more time talking with the penitent pope. As he and Virgil continue around the fifth terrace, a voice is heard honoring those whose virtue was praiseworthy. Dante goes to speak to this soul – Hugh Capet – who makes a long apostrophe against the wickedness of his heirs. Hugh then explains the punishment of the sinners on this level. Not long after Dante and Virgil take their leave, the entire mountain shakes violently, frightening Dante badly.

            Though I would like to have stayed and talked with that penitent longer, I yielded to his desire to continue with his penance and moved on with Virgil. Keeping to the edge of the cliff, and walking wherever there was space, he was like one who walks along the edge of the battlements. Strewn along our path, those souls left little room for us to pass, as they wept for the sin that fills our world.

            Curse you and damn you, O ancient She-Wolf, who steal more souls to feed your unsated greed than any other beastly creature! O heavens, whose movements some believe rule our destiny, when will that one come to chase away this vicious beast?

            As we moved along cautiously, I was preoccupied with all those weeping souls laying there around us. But soon, a voice somewhere ahead of us shouted out “Sweet Mary!” like a woman in labor. The voice continued: “Everyone knows how poor you were to have your precious child in such a place.” And then there was another exclamation: “O good Fabricius, you chose the virtue of poverty over a life of luxury and vice.”

            I was so pleased by what I heard that I quickly walked to the place where that voice came from, hoping to know who it belonged to as he kept on, this time praising the compassionate St. Nicholas, whose generous gifts saved three young girls from a life of sin.

            Coming upon him now, I said: “O good soul, proclaiming such praiseworthy deeds, who were you, and why does no one else join in your praises? Your answer will be rewarded if I return to finish my life in the world.”

            “I won’t answer you in order to get your help,” he replied. “But simply because your living presence here shows me God’s loving grace. I was the root of an evil tree that spreads its shadowy boughs over all the Christian world so that good fruit rarely grows in its shade. If only Douai, Lillle, Ghent, and Bruges were stronger, then they could reap the vengeance that is theirs – and for this I beg of Him who is the judge of all!

            “On earth, I was known as Hugh Capet, father of the Louises and Philips who rule France to this very day. My father was a butcher from Paris. When the ancient kings had all died, except for the one who became a monk, the reign passed over to me. That new power made me rich in wealth and friends, so that the French crown was eventually given to my son and all his anointed heirs.

            “Most of them were worth little and did little harm, until their plot to get Provence by marriage  – and by fraud and force. Later, they captured Ponthieu, Normandy, and Gascony. Then Charles of Anjou marched to Italy and defeated Conradin. Later he is said to have sent Aquinas off to Heaven by poison.

            “A time will come soon when France will have a second Charles and a chance to see how he and his family behaves. Called alone to Italy, he will carry only the spear of Judas and thrust it into the belly of Florence! His only reward for this treachery will be shame. He will think nothing of his crimes and accept no blame for his wicked deeds.

            “Then will come a third Charles, once taken captive, who stopped at nothing to satisfy his greed, even selling his daughter – haggling over her price as do pirates with their female slaves! O Avarice! Can you cause more harm? You have so captivated my heirs that they care nothing for their own children!

            “But to make these crimes, and more, seem like child’s play, I see our fleur-de-lis assault the papal palace and, like brigands, attack Christ Himself in the person of the pope! They imprison Him, give Him gall to drink, mock Him yet again, and murder Him between two thieves! I see a new Pontius Pilate, so filled with wickedness that in his greed he proceeds to attack the Templars to usurp their power and wealth. How long, O Lord, must I wait to see your vengeance against such evil which, for now, lies hidden in the depths of Your will?

            “The words I spoke earlier about Mary – which brought you here seeking an explanation – these we recite all day long. At night, we do the opposite: we recall Pygmalion and how his thirst for gold turned him into a traitor, a thief, and a murderer. We recall Midas, whose foolish greed left him starving and a lasting object of ridicule; Achan, who kept some of the spoils of Jericho, which led to his family’s death and his own. We accuse Sapphira and her husband, who sought to defraud the Apostles; we praise the horses that kicked Heliodorus, who came to rob God’s Temple. The entire mountain knows the shame of Polymnestor, who killed his friend’s son, Polydorus; and finally we shout to Crassus, asking him about the taste of gold!

            “Sometimes we cry out, at other times we pray softly, depending on how our feelings move us – sometimes more, sometimes less. So, you see, I wasn’t the only one crying out the words of praise you heard; it was simply by chance that no one else cried out at the same time.”

            Virgil and I then took our leave of him, hoping to make as much progress as we could, given all those prostrate souls on our path. But suddenly… the entire mountain shook with such force I thought it would collapse. Feeling that I would die at any moment, I felt my body go numb and cold. The island of Delos, before Latona went there to give birth to Jupiter’s children, never shook like this. Then a great shout rose up from everywhere on the mountain and Virgil came quickly to my side, reassuring me: “You needn’t fear anything as long as I am your guide.”

            Gloria in excelsis Deo everyone sang, at least this is what I heard from those close by us. And like the shepherds who first heard that heavenly hymn, we stood there, suspended in that moment, until the hymn ended and the shaking stopped.

            We continued along that holy path where the prostrate souls had returned to their weeping. But I will say this: unless my memory fails me, I never experienced such an overwhelming desire to know the truth as I did then – I was consumed by it! Yet I also knew not to slow our journey down with more questions since I could see that there would be no explanations forthcoming. And so I continued to walk along, uncertain, lost in my thoughts.