Dante and Medicine: The Circle of Malpractice
By Pasquale Accardo
Southern Medical Journal, Vol. 82:5 (1989)
Introduction: Dante’s Commedia is a literary epic of almost unimaginable breadth and complexity that infolds recursively via one of the most condensed poetic dictions in world literature. The poem is rigorously mathematically structured to present a summa (a comprehensive treatise) of knowledge in the 13th century. Ancient and then-modern history, biography, science, and literature are contained hierarchically within a meticulous pattern of dramatic individual encounters with a diverse cross section of persons in the three realms of the afterlife. The professionals represented include canonists, clergy, gods and goddesses, historians, jurists, lawyers, logicians, mythical and biblical figures, nobles, orators, philosophers, poets, politicians, rhetoricians, saints, soldiers, theologians, and troubadours. Now Dante was, if anything, scholarly, and the great centers of advanced learning in the Middle Ages stressed theology, law, or medicine; representatives of this last discipline, however, appear to be conspicuously absent in an otherwise encyclopedic panorama of medieval life. To begin to understand this absence will first require a brief survey of physicians in the Divine Comedy. To start from the top (Heaven) and proceed downward will reverse the direction of Dante’s journey, but it will lead to the place (Hell) where a more pointed question may be asked and answered.