St. Francis inspired the Inferno, says professor


A distinguished professor of medieval history said during a Nov. 17 lecture that Dante Alighieri’s great “Divine Comedy” was greatly influenced by St. Francis of Assisi and used Dante’s text to support his claim.

Professor William R. Cook, formerly of the State University of New York, Geneseo, said that in the “Divine Comedy,” Dante had three guides obvious in the text: the Roman poet Virgil, a character in the book named Beatrice and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. However, Cook made the argument that there was a fourth guide that wasn’t made explicit in the text, which was St. Francis.

Cook pointed to several parts of the text which he said were proof of the influence St. Francis had on Dante. Cook said that St. Francis was referenced during Dante’s encounter with St. Thomas Aquinas, where Aquinas told Dante Francis’ life story. Another reference was made when Dante writes about seeing some Franciscans in hell and others in Purgatory.

Cook said that part of the reason Dante took so much influence from St. Francis was because of the similarities they both shared, despite living drastically different lives. Cook said that Francis grew up in a small city with a rich lifestyle, despite being uneducated, until he gave everything up voluntarily to follow Christ. Dante was from a big city, highly educated and was a politician that did not leave office willingly when he was exiled.

Cook said that it was being exiled that allowed for Dante to allow St. Francis to guide and inspire him in his personal life before coming to guide and inspire him in writing of the “Divine Comedy.”

“Francis lived in the way of poverty, humility and simplicity, even though those weren’t natural to him,” Cook said. “Those are the virtues that Dante needed to acquire, and he looked to Francis in order to obtain them.”

Cook said that the greatness of St. Francis came from his joy in humility, which had profound impacts on Dante.

Cook gave his lecture in the Gentile Gallery, which was filled with students. Many English professors brought students to the lecture in place of holding class or for extra credit, which allowed for the significant turnout. Several of the students stayed after the lecture to listen to a presentation on Cook’s foundation and for a question and answer section.

Thomas Wilkinson, a senior theology major, said that he had never considered a possible connection between Dante’s work and St. Francis.

“It was a very interesting way to put the ‘Divine Comedy’ in a Franciscan light, which I had never considered before,” said Wilkinson. “Dante and Francis were so different in some ways, but they were very similar in other ways.”

Junior communication arts major Chloe Batara said that Cook’s talk reinforced some aspects of the “Divine Comedy” that she had learned when studying the work in class.

“I knew that Dante was writing a story of spiritual transformation, but it was really cool to see how one of the pillars of Franciscan University had an impact on such a great work,” Batara said.