In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the intellectual scene of Europe was largely shaped by the dissemination of the first Latin translations of the works of Aristotle, and of the commentaries to his work made by mediaeval Islamic philosophers such as Avicenna and Averroes.
It would be difficult to overestimate the effect of the dissemination of these works by Aristotle. Aristotle's works offered an account of nature in general and human nature in particular without making much theological reference. They presented human reason and human nature in a way that did not necessarily seem to require the Christian God in order to make sense. As such, while not necessarily incompatible with Christian thought, the works of Aristotle presented an enormous challenge to mediaeval Christian thinkers. This challenge was picked up by thinkers such as Albert the Great and, most famously, by his pupil Thomas Aquinas, who in his Summa Theologiae fashioned a Christian theology that incorporated the new teachings. Dante too was greatly influenced by the work of Aristotle and by that of Aristotelian thinkers such as Albert the Great and Aquinas.
Until the arrival of the works of Aristotle, mediaeval Christian thought had been dominated by the conceptual frameworks deriving largely from the work of the Church Fathers. Most influential down the centuries was the work of Augustine of Hippo (354-430) whose theology had in turn been influenced by Neoplatonic philosophy. Unlike the system of laws offered by Aristotle, the conceptual framework passed onto the later Middle Ages by Augustine and the Church Fathers presented an account of the world and human nature dependent on the idea that everything that exists is created and sustained into existence by a divine act of love. The arrival of the works of Aristotle did not mean that the earlier conceptual framework was abandoned. Indeed, one could not properly come to terms with Dante's understanding of the universe without taking into account his idea of the dependence of the universe on the creative act of divine love. The arrival of the works of Aristotle did mean however that in the philosophical and theological debates of Dante's day there was a growing emphasis on human reason as able to see and understand the world without the aid of revelation. The Commedia may in many ways be seen as Dante's contribution to these debates.
Learning in Dante's day also took, to a large extent, the form of textual interpretation. These included literary texts such as those of Virgil (70-19BC), Ovid (43BC-AD17), and Statius (?45-AD96) as well as philosophical works. The most important and authoritative text of all was considered to be the Bible -- a collection of texts thought to have been inspired directly by God. Another important part of one's study of any particular topic would have been the interpretation of authoritative commentaries on authoritative texts. Some of these commentaries even came to be considered as authoritative texts in their own right, as for example the commentaries on the Bible made by early Church Fathers such as Augustine and Gregory the Great.
© Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson