Yearning for a drink, a woman... and God

July 6, 2001

International Medieval Congress

Catherine Keen examines next year's theme.

" I am stricken with pity more than most, for anyone who drags out his life in exile, revisiting his native land only in dreams "

These words were written by one of the most famous authors of the Middle Ages, Dante Alighieri. As his readers would have known, his outstanding pity for the exile's plight was based on direct experience, for he spent the final 20 years of his life under sentence of banishment from his native city of Florence. He was condemned to exile in 1302.

The richness of the exile theme is confirmed by the diversity of disciplines that will be represented at a round table at Leeds at this year's congress - Jewish and Christian thought, canon and civil law, literature from the early Anglo-Saxon north to the proto-Renaissance Italian south, mobile groups such as merchants, pilgrims and missionaries. The round table is a forerunner to the Leeds International Medieval Congress 2002 - the septcentenary of Dante's banishment - where exile will be a special theme.

Exile has a bearing on aspects of both the history and the spiritual beliefs of the Christian, the Jewish and the Islamic worlds, with their pasts in desert or catacomb, their self-definitions as "chosen peoples" journeying towards God, their mutual attempts to identify or to impose patterns of inclusion and exclusion in the post-lapsarian universe. Medieval literary texts offer countless variations on the mood and theme of exile. Early centuries produce the moving lament of the Anglo-Saxon wanderer and tales of the ascetic self-exile of Irish pilgrim-saints seeking a "place of resurrection" among strangers. In later courtly works, both the questing knight of romance and the lover who speaks in lyric verse endure experiences of exilic alienation from their object of desire, be it the lady, the court or the Grail.

When we come to 13th and 14th-century Italy, the centrality of exile in literature matches its rising historical profile. In the society of the Italian city-states, faction politics led to frequent individual and mass banishments. The cities used the weapons of law, warfare and even the visual arts (in defamatory paintings) to impose damnatio memoriae on offenders. In turn, exiles dramatised their condition in literature and polemic.

Recent research on the history of Italian exile by scholars such as Jacques Heers and Christine Shaw have highlighted its legal, political and social particularities, while literary scholars including Giuseppe Mazzotta and Michelangelo Picone have provided insights into the deployment of the idea of exile in works of imagination.

Dante's words quoted above show the commonness of exile in his society. In fact, Dante offers this dictum almost en passant in his treatise on vernacular language, De vulgari eloquentia . The treatise names 20 or so poets - including Dante - writing in forms of Italian, whose work survives today. At least a quarter of them composed verse on exile or estrangement.

Such poets often draw on the conventions about distance or delayed gratification established in the erotic or Christian traditions and redirect them to address the exiling but beloved native city. They often express the feelings of dreamy nostalgia to which Dante alludes, but are equally likely to offer criticism or complaint, haranguing the hostile regime for vices of many kinds. Many bemoan the economic and cultural deprivation of exile, depicting their homeland as a golden world of urban sophistication that contrasts with expatriate discomforts. There is even a parodic tradition in which the exile languishing outside the city gates laments the loss of its civilised pleasures - drinking, gambling and sexual liaisons.

All of these traditions can be seen as contributing to one of the greatest medieval works of literature, Dante's Divine Comedy . In the poem, Dante draws together themes and imagery from the Christian, classical and contemporary worlds. Opening in the "dark wood" of existential alienation, the Divine Comedy can be interpreted as an individual's attempt to recreate imaginative order in the bewildering circumstances of exile from Florence. Its protagonist represents Dante, but he is also Everyman, whose journey extends out of the ordinary human world (the Christian's post-lapsarian exile from God), through the wastelands of hell and the pilgrim provisionality of purgatory, on to a final homecoming in paradise.

The journey echoes biblical and early Christian paradigms, but it also draws on the notion of quest, on the ethos of deferral or sublimation developed in love poetry and on classical myths of the journeys undertaken by Ulysses, Aeneas, Jason and a host of others. Hell accommodates gluttons, sodomites, heretics, infidels and traitors - all the outcasts of both serious and humorous traditions of exile literature, while the protagonist is depicted as both epic hero and Christian pilgrim.

Reading Dante and unpacking the multiplicity of meanings he encapsulates into the theme of exile, it comes as no surprise to find generations of scholars agreeing that its journey image is one of the key terms of the medieval cultural universe. The coming Leeds meetings dedicated to exile will no doubt bring out many other aspects of a theme that increasingly is recognised as - perhaps paradoxically - central to the medieval imagination.

Catherine Keen is lecturer in Italian at Leeds University.
The deadline for submissions for the 2002 Medieval Congress, on the theme of exile, is August 31 (papers) and September 30 (sessions).

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