Canto 19

WOE to thee, Simon Magus! woe to you,
His wretched followers! who the things of God,
Which should be wedded unto goodness, them,
Rapacious as ye are, do prostitute
For gold and silver in adultery!
Now must the trumpet sound for you, since yours
Is the third chasm.  Upon the following vault
We now had mounted, where the rock impends
Directly o'er the centre of the foss.

Wisdom Supreme! how wonderful the art,
Which thou dost manifest in heaven, in earth,
And in the evil world, how just a meed
Allotting by thy virtue unto all!

I saw the livid stone, throughout the sides
And in its bottom full of apertures,
All equal in their width, and circular each,
Nor ample less nor larger they appear'd
Than in Saint John's fair dome of me belov'd
Those fram'd to hold the pure baptismal streams,
One of the which I brake, some few years past,
To save a whelming infant; and be this
A seal to undeceive whoever doubts
The motive of my deed.  From out the mouth
Of every one, emerg'd a sinner's feet
And of the legs high upward as the calf
The rest beneath was hid.  On either foot
The soles were burning, whence the flexile joints
Glanc'd with such violent motion, as had snapt
Asunder cords or twisted withs.  As flame,
Feeding on unctuous matter, glides along
The surface, scarcely touching where it moves;
So here, from heel to point, glided the flames.

"Master! say who is he, than all the rest
Glancing in fiercer agony, on whom
A ruddier flame doth prey?"  I thus inquir'd.

"If thou be willing," he replied, "that I
Carry thee down, where least the slope bank falls,
He of himself shall tell thee and his wrongs."

I then: "As pleases thee to me is best.
Thou art my lord; and know'st that ne'er I quit
Thy will: what silence hides that knowest thou."
Thereat on the fourth pier we came, we turn'd,
And on our left descended to the depth,
A narrow strait and perforated close.
Nor from his side my leader set me down,
Till to his orifice he brought, whose limb
Quiv'ring express'd his pang.  "Whoe'er thou art,
Sad spirit! thus revers'd, and as a stake
Driv'n in the soil!"  I in these words began,
"If thou be able, utter forth thy voice."

There stood I like the friar, that doth shrive
A wretch for murder doom'd, who e'en when fix'd,
Calleth him back, whence death awhile delays.

He shouted: "Ha! already standest there?
Already standest there, O Boniface!
By many a year the writing play'd me false.
So early dost thou surfeit with the wealth,
For which thou fearedst not in guile to take
The lovely lady, and then mangle her?"

I felt as those who, piercing not the drift
Of answer made them, stand as if expos'd
In mockery, nor know what to reply,
When Virgil thus admonish'd: "Tell him quick,
I am not he, not he, whom thou believ'st."

And I, as was enjoin'd me, straight replied.

That heard, the spirit all did wrench his feet,
And sighing next in woeful accent spake:
"What then of me requirest?"  "If to know
So much imports thee, who I am, that thou
Hast therefore down the bank descended, learn
That in the mighty mantle I was rob'd,
And of a she-bear was indeed the son,
So eager to advance my whelps, that there
My having in my purse above I stow'd,
And here myself.  Under my head are dragg'd
The rest, my predecessors in the guilt
Of simony.  Stretch'd at their length they lie
Along an opening in the rock.  'Midst them
I also low shall fall, soon as he comes,
For whom I took thee, when so hastily
I question'd.  But already longer time
Hath pass'd, since my souls kindled, and I thus
Upturn'd have stood, than is his doom to stand
Planted with fiery feet.  For after him,
One yet of deeds more ugly shall arrive,
From forth the west, a shepherd without law,
Fated to cover both his form and mine.
He a new Jason shall be call'd, of whom
In Maccabees we read; and favour such
As to that priest his king indulgent show'd,
Shall be of France's monarch shown to him."

I know not if I here too far presum'd,
But in this strain I answer'd: "Tell me now,
What treasures from St. Peter at the first
Our Lord demanded, when he put the keys
Into his charge?  Surely he ask'd no more
But, Follow me! Nor Peter nor the rest
Or gold or silver of Matthias took,
When lots were cast upon the forfeit place
Of the condemned soul.  Abide thou then;
Thy punishment of right is merited:
And look thou well to that ill-gotten coin,
Which against Charles thy hardihood inspir'd.
If reverence of the keys restrain'd me not,
Which thou in happier time didst hold, I yet
Severer speech might use.  Your avarice
O'ercasts the world with mourning, under foot
Treading the good, and raising bad men up.
Of shepherds, like to you, th' Evangelist
Was ware, when her, who sits upon the waves,
With kings in filthy whoredom he beheld,
She who with seven heads tower'd at her birth,
And from ten horns her proof of glory drew,
Long as her spouse in virtue took delight.
Of gold and silver ye have made your god,
Diff'ring wherein from the idolater,
But he that worships one, a hundred ye?
Ah, Constantine! to how much ill gave birth,
Not thy conversion, but that plenteous dower,
Which the first wealthy Father gain'd from thee!"

Meanwhile, as thus I sung, he, whether wrath
Or conscience smote him, violent upsprang
Spinning on either sole.  I do believe
My teacher well was pleas'd, with so compos'd
A lip, he listen'd ever to the sound
Of the true words I utter'd.  In both arms
He caught, and to his bosom lifting me
Upward retrac'd the way of his descent.

Nor weary of his weight he press'd me close,
Till to the summit of the rock we came,
Our passage from the fourth to the fifth pier.
His cherish'd burden there gently he plac'd
Upon the rugged rock and steep, a path
Not easy for the clamb'ring goat to mount.

Thence to my view another vale appear'd


  1. Dante sardonically quips that the only difference between idolators and the church is that idolators worship one thing, while the church worships a hundred things (that is, large sums of money).

    — Stephen Holliday
  2. Dante interprets the seven heads as the Catholic Church's Seven Sacraments, and the ten horns as the Ten Commandments. "Filthy whoredom" most likely refers to the corruption within the Catholic Church, created by the wealth acquired through the secular power of the church.

    — Stephen Holliday
  3. Virgil listens with a satisfied expression on his face, for he knows the truth and discernment of Dante's words.

    — Stephen Holliday
  4. This passage refers to what is known as the "Donation of Constantine." In the Middle Ages, many believed that when Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium (later, Constantinople), he transferred political control of Italy and other parts of the western Roman Empire to the Catholic Church (i. e., to the Pope). Dante was convinced that this was a serious mistake because it created a politically powerful, wealthy, and therefore corrupt, church. After Dante died, the document upon which the "donation" was based was proven to be fraudulent, most likely written in the papal court or in France several centuries after Constantine died.

    — Stephen Holliday
  5. This refers to Pope Nicholas's conspiracy against Charles d'Anjou, King of Naples and Sicily.

    — Stephen Holliday
  6. In the New Testament, Matthias paid 30 pieces of silver to replace Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Christ, as the 12th Apostle.

    — Stephen Holliday
  7. Dante knows full well that he may be overstepping in this criticism, but he continues anyway.

    — Stephen Holliday
  8. This passage refers to the story of the biblical Jason, who was named high priest after successfully bribing King Antiochus, as detailed in Maccabees 4.

    — Stephen Holliday
  9. This refers to a French Archbishop named Bertrand de Got, who took the name Pope Clement V in 1305 and was elected through the influence of France's King Phillip IV. Clement repaid King Phillip by moving the papacy to Avignon, France, in 1309. This change threw the Catholic Church, which had always been headquartered in Rome, into a turmoil that lasted almost 100 years until 1417, when the papacy returned to Rome permanently.

    — Stephen Holliday
  10. Nicholas III, who was himself pope from 1277-1280, was of the Orsini family (the "little bears") and is most remembered for committing nepotism by handing out powerful Church positions to his own family members.

    — Stephen Holliday
  11. Dante has encountered a sinner who confuses him for Pope Boniface VIII. Boniface was originally Benedetto Caetani, a scholar of religious law who became pope after the abdication of Pope Celestine V in 1294, who may have abdicated because he was threatened by Caetani. Dante disliked Pope Boniface VIII intensely and considered him a danger to the church because Boniface believed that the pope should be both the leader of the church and of the secular government. Dante, on the other hand, believed in a balance of power between church and state. Boniface's greatest sin, in Dante's eyes, was that he intervened in the struggles for power in Florence between the White and Black Guelphs. Boniface sided with the Black Guelphs, who exiled the White Guelphs, including Dante. In this scene, another simonist, Nicholas III, mistakes Dante for Boniface because he is buried upside down and cannot see Virgil or Dante.

    — Stephen Holliday
  12. Shrive is an archaic word referring to the process by which a priest, pastor, or friar hears someone's confession and offers absolution for their sins. Shriving is generally associated with Roman Catholicism.

    — Stephen Holliday
  13. Dante is recounting an incident in which he saved an infant who had fallen into the baptismal font. It is unclear if anyone doubted the truth of this incident, but Dante chooses to make a definitive statement about it.

    — Stephen Holliday
  14. Dante refers to the baptismal font in the baptistry of San Giovanni—"Saint John's fair dome"—in which he was baptized. The baptistry stands adjacent to the famous Florentine Duomo.

    — Stephen Holliday
  15. This the Third Pouch of the Eight Circle of Hell, in which those guilty of simony suffer. Simonists are those guilty of selling pardons and indulgences to sinners who want to avoid or reduce their punishment in the Hell—the original "get-out-of-Hell-free" card. Simon Magus, the namesake of simony, is here. Simon Magus was a famous magician who, after converting to Christianity, was deeply impressed with the ability of the Apostles Paul and John to infuse the faithful with the Holy Spirit. Magus then offered Christians money to give him the same power, which, according to doctrine, can only be derived from faith and good works, not money.

    — Stephen Holliday