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Canto XIX

Eighth Circle third pit: simonists.—Pope Nicholas III.

Oh Simon Magus! Oh ye his wretched followers, who, rapacious, do prostitute for gold and silver the things of God that ought to be the brides of righteousness, now it behoves for you the trumpet sound, since ye are in the third pit!

Already were we come to the next tomb,[1] mounted on that part of the crag which just above the middle of the ditch hangs plumb. Oh Supreme Wisdom, how great is the art that Thou displayest in Heaven, on Earth, and in the Evil World! and how justly doth Thy Power distribute!

[1] The next bolgia or pit.

I saw along the sides, and over the bottom, the livid stone full of holes all of one size, and each was circular. They seemed to me not less wide nor larger than those that in my beautiful Saint John are made as place for the baptizers [1] one of which, not many years ago, I broke for sake of one who was stifling in it; and be this the seal to undeceive all men. Forth from the mouth of each protruded the feet of a sinner, and his legs up to the calf, and the rest was within. The soles of all were both on fire, wherefore their joints quivered so violently that they would have snapped withes and bands. As the flaming of things oiled is wont to move only on the outer surface, so was it there from the heels to the toes.

[1] "My beautiful Saint John" is the Baptistery at Florence. In Dante's time the infants, born during the year, were all here baptized by immersion, mostly on the day of St. John Baptist, the 24th of June. There was a large circular font in the middle of the church, and around it in its marble wall were four cylindrical standing-places for the priests, closed by doors, to protect them from the pressure of the crowd.

"Who is he, Master, that writhes, quivering more than the others his consorts," said I, "and whom a ruddier flame is sucking?" And he to me, "If thou wilt that I carry thee down there by that bank which slopes the most,[1] from him thou shalt know of himself and of his wrongs." And I, "Whatever pleaseth thee even so is good to me. Thou art Lord, and knowest that I part me not from thy will, and thou knowest that which is unspoken."

[1] The whole of the Eighth circle slopes toward the centre, so that the inner wall of each bolgia is lower, and is less sharply inclined than the outer.

Then we went upon the fourth dyke, turned, and descended on the left hand, down to the bottom pierced with holes, and narrow. And the good Master set me not down yet from his haunch, till he brought me to the cleft of him who was thus lamenting with his shanks.

"O whoe'er thou art, that keepest upside down, sad soul, planted like a stake," I began to say, "speak, if thou canst." I was standing like the friar who confesses the perfidious assassin,[1] who, after he is fixed, recalls him, in order to delay his death.

[1] Such criminals were not infrequently punished by being set, head downwards, in a hole in which they were buried alive.

And he[1] cried out, "Art thou already standing there? Art thoh already standing there, Boniface? By several years the record lied to me. Art thou so quickly sated with that having, for which thou didst not fear to seize by guile the beautiful Lady,[2] and then to do her outrage?"

[1] This is Nicholas III., pope from 1277 to 128O; he takes Dante to be Boniface VIII., but Boniface was not to die till 13O3. Compare what Nicholas says of "the record" with Farinata's statement, in Canto X, concerning the foresight of the damned.

[2] The Church, to which Boniface did outrage in many forms; but worst by his simoniacal practices.

Such I became as those that, not comprehending that which is replied to them, stand as if mocked, and know not what to answer.

Then Virgil said, "Tell him quickly, I am not he, I am not he thou thinkest." And I answered as was enjoined on me; whereat the spirit quite twisted his feet. Thereafter, sighing and with tearful voice, he said to me, "Then what dost thou require of me? If to know who I am concerneth thee so much that thou hast crossed the bank therefor, know that I was vested with the Great Mantle; and verily I was a son of the She-Bear,[1] so eager to advance the cubs, that up there I put wealth, and here myself, into the purse. Beneath my head are stretched the others that preceded me in simony, flattened through the fissures of the rock. There below shall I likewise sink, when he shall come whom I believed thou wert, then when I put to thee the sudden question; but already the time is longer that I have cooked my feet, and that I have been thus upside down, than he will stay planted with red feet; for after him will come, of uglier deed, from westward, a shepherd without law,[2] such as must cover him and me again. A new Jason will he be, of whom it is read in Maccabees;[3] and as to that one his king was compliant, so unto this he who rules France shall be."[4]

[1] Nicholas was of the Orsini family.

[2] Clement V., who will come from Avignon, and in a little more than ten years after the death of Boniface. Nicholas had already "cooked his feet" for twenty years. The prophecy of the death of Clement after a shorter time affords an indication that this canto was not written until after 1314, the year of his death.

[3] The story of Jason, "that ungodly wretch and no high-priest" who bought the high-priesthood from King Antiochus, is told in 2 Maccabees iv. Its application to the Pope was plain.

[4] "He who rules France" was Philip the Fair.

I know not if here I was too audacious that I only answered him in this strain, "Pray now tell me how much treasure our Lord desired of Saint Peter before he placed the keys in his keeping? Surely he required nothing save 'Follow me.' Nor did Peter or the others require of Matthias gold or silver, when he was chosen to the place which the guilty soul had lost. Therefore stay thou, for thou art rightly punished, and guard well the ill-gotten money that against Charles[1] made thee to be bold. And were it not that reverence for the Supreme Keys that thou heldest in the glad life still forbiddeth me, I would use words still more grave; for your avarice saddens the world, trampling down the good and exalting the bad. Of you shepherds the Evangelist was aware, when she that sitteth upon the waters was seen by him to fornicate with kings: that woman that was born with the seven heads, and from the ten horns had evidence, so long as virtue pleased her spouse.[2] Ye have made you a god of gold and silver: and what difference is there between you and the idolater save that he worships one and ye a hundred? Ah Constantine! of how much ill was mother, not thy conversion, but that dowry which the first rich Father received from thee!"[3]

[1] Charles of Anjou, of whom Nicholas III, was the enemy. He was charged with having been bribed to support the attempt to expel the French from Sicily, which began with the Sicilian Vespers in 1282.

[2] Dante deals freely with the figures of the Apocalypse: Revelation wii. The woman here stands for the Church; her seven heads may be interpreted as the Seven Sacraments, and her ten horns as the Commandments; her spouse is the Pope.

[3] The reference is to the so-called Donation of Constantine, the reality of which was generally accepted till long after Dante's time.

And, while I was singing these notes to him, whether anger or conscience stung him, he violently quivered with both feet. I believe, forsooth, that it had pleased my Leader, with so contented look be listened ever to the sound of the true words uttered. Thereupon with both his arms he took me, and when he had me wholly on his breast, remounted on the way by which he had descended. Nor did he tire of holding me clasped till he had borne me up to the summit of the arch which is the passage from the fourth to the fifth dyke. Here softly he laid down his burden, softly because of the ragged and steep crag, that would be a difficult pass for goats. Thence another great valley was discovered to me.

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