I will eviscerate you in fiction!

Dante and Virgil on their sightseeing tour of Hell, The Morgan Library, MS M.676 fol. 28r (c. 1345 AD)

There’s a scene in the movie ‘A knight’s Tale’ where a Geoffrey Chaucer played by Paul Bettany confronts Simon the Summoner and Peter the Pardoner to whom Chaucer had lost his clothes through gambling. The author of the Canterbury Tales execrates the two men with the following words:

‘I will eviscerate you in fiction.

Every last pimple, every last character flaw.

I was naked for a day.

You will be naked for eternity!

The anathema is hilarious and makes sense only if you remember that two of the Canterbury Tales are the Summoner’s Tale and the Pardoner’s Tale. A fictionalised Chaucer tells us that the source of two of his world-famous stories started in a gambling mishap. A joke, of course, as there is no evidence that Chaucer gambled, or that an alliterative summoner called Simon and a pardoner called Peter ever crossed paths, swords or words with the English storyteller.

Remarkably, there is far less Chaucer in this Chauceresque movie scene than there is Dante. The idea that an author can exact revenge on an historical figure by casting them in an unenviable character in a work of fiction goes all the way back to ancient Greece. Just think of the caricature of Socrates in Aristophanes’ play The Clouds. But the bitterness of the Knight’s Tale scene has a more proximate source and it smacks of Dante’s Inferno. Hell is many things, but it is also where you put your enemies and those you despise. Hell is other people, quipped Sartre. Other people you revile, would’ve added Dante.

One example. Pope Clement V’s record of iniquities was endless. One story has it that a thunderstorm caused a fire in a church which burned Clement’s body as it was lying in state. But Dante’s obit has the final word, written during Clement’s pontificate, a vituperative epitaph slated for release before the pope was even dead: here he comes, the most despicable of the simonist popes, make room for him! It’s what we remember Clement V by, as well as other popes and political leaders whose confinement in the Dantean hell underwrites their eternal, vicious memory.

In the eighth circle of Hell, we also meet Alessio Interminelli da Lucca, a nobleman punished for the sin of flattery by having his naked body submerged in excrement up to his neck. You will be naked for eternity!

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