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Dante and the “Dead White Dude” Dilemma: Exploring the Complexities of Diversity and Controversy in Medieval Literature

Dante and the “Dead White Dude” Dilemma: Exploring the Complexities of Diversity and Controversy in Medieval Literature

By Grace Therrell

BA Honors Thesis, Western Kentucky University, 2017

Dante, detail of a fresco by Luca Signorelli (1450-1523) in cappella di San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto

Abstract: Recently, one of the goals on the English discipline has been diversification. Students and scholars alike call for program requirements that are inclusive instead of imperialistic. They want to read texts written by non-white, non-male authors and to hear voices that are less represented in literature. In short, they want to eliminate the focus on literature written by the “dead white dude.”

While literature programs should be more diversified, it is still possible to hear from marginalized voices and discuss current controversial issues through older canonical texts. Dante Alighieri does this exceptionally well in his Divine Comedy as he tends to diverge from traditional medieval thinking.


In Inferno specifically, Dante includes voices from women, same-sex sinners, and cultural Others in order to push back against the oppressive attitudes of his day. Although Dante’s poem does not provide a perfect subversion of medieval attitudes, it does complicate them, giving us space to question not only his characters but also our own society.

Click here to read this thesis from Western Kentucky University

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