Life in the Middle Ages was inextricably bound to religion. The culture and society of most of Europe was, in Dante's day, profoundly shaped by Christianity. It was thought that human beings had been created by God, and that the final end or purpose of their existence was to be at one with God. By following the will of God, it was believed that human beings could partake in the life of God himself, thus deserving eternal blessedness after death. It was also thought that the very first human beings to have been created by God - Adam and Eve - had been created in a state of perfect union with God, but had broken the perfection of this union by going against his will. This first breaking of the perfect union between mankind and God - generally referred to as 'original sin' - was thought of as having been passed on from Adam and Eve to the rest of humanity.
Human history was defined in terms of the way in which mankind could restore the perfect union with God broken by original sin. This process was seen to be governed by God and divine providence (and is often referred to as 'providential history'). The supreme instance of this was thought to be the Incarnation: God making himself man and living without sin, so as to restore, as man, the union between man and God. The term generally used for the restoration of the union between man and God effected by the incarnation is 'redemption'. God was thought to have made himself man as Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary. Four accounts of the life of Jesus were included in the Bible, taken as the basis for Christian doctrine and teaching. The rest of the Bible was interpreted in the light of the Gospels.
The redemption of humanity was ultimately thought to have been brought about by Christ's death and resurrection. It was believed that Christ had been unjustly condemned to death and crucified; that this death was both actively willed as part of providential history by God, and accepted upon himself by God as Christ; and that through Christ the possibility of a perfect union between man and God had been restored because in him human nature had been freely ready to follow the will of God, even to the point of accepting the crucifixion. It was also believed that three days after his death Christ's earthly flesh was resurrected by God and reunited with Christ's soul in heaven. Christ's resurrection was believed to be the ultimate sign of mankind's redemption.
It was thought that, after humanity had been redeemed by Christ, human beings could, by believing in Christ and by following his teachings and example, be perfectly reunited to God and merit a life of eternal blessedness after death. Eternal blessedness was thought to consist in an eternal vision of God (the 'beatific vision'), and in an eternal participation in God's own being. It was seen as the duty of every human being to gain eternal blessedness by not sinning and by following the example and teaching of Christ. Not to fulfil this duty would mean to renounce the possibility of eternal blessedness. After death, it was thought, each soul would be judged and, depending on whether or not it followed God's will, either be granted salvation or be damned. It was also thought that, at the end of time, every soul would be reunited with its earthly flesh just as Christ's had been reunited with his.
Human beings, it was thought, needed guidance so as to be able to correctly believe and follow the example of Christ. The Church was defined as the community of all those who believed in and followed the example of Christ, and its life was guided by the teaching of its earthly leader - the Pope - and by that of other religious authorities. These included bishops, archbishops, priests and members of religious orders. Religious orders played a very prominent role in the religious life of Dante's day. Of particular significance, was the creation and growth of the Franciscans and Dominican orders. Unlike more traditional orders such as the Benedictines and the Cistercians their life was not based in monasteries separated from the rest of society, but in communities located in cities and integrated into the very fibre of civic life. As such, their growth is very much tied to the urban developments of the hundred years or so preceding Dante's birth.
Further listening: five short lectures, by Ruth Chester (University of Leeds), introduce key aspects of Dante's religious thought. The lectures are:
12. Dante's Religious Thought 1: Trinity
13. Dante's Religious Thought 2: Incarnation
14. Dante's Religious Thought 3: Form and Matter
15. Dante's Religious Thought 4: Original Sin
16. Dante's Religious Thought 5: Sacraments
© Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson