Dante’s Fainting: A Medical Enigma from the Middle Ages
A guest post by Michele A. Riva
2015 is the 750th anniversary of the birth of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), the author of the literature masterpiece the Divine Comedy. Written between 1304 and 1321, the Divine Comedy is an epic poem that describes Dante’s imaginative and allegorical journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. The poem has inspired not only the creative efforts of illustrious authors such as William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer and John Milton, but also an ongoing debate on the “medical conditions” that are so frequently depicted in it.
During his Hell-Purgatory-Heaven journey, Dante frequently experiences symptoms such as loss of consciousness, hallucinations and fainting, which he relates to love and passion, fear and anguish, and mysticism. However, a few medical scholars think these symptoms could be mirroring a real pathological condition that affected Dante since childhood. So, for these medical scholars, the question is: what is the most likely pathological condition that was causing Dante’s symptoms? Narcolepsy is one of the possible answers.
Narcolepsy is a disorder characterized by excessive sleepiness, associated with hallucinations, episodes of muscle weakness and subsequent falls, which are always triggered by strong emotions. So, all the Divine Comedy could be interpreted as a result of hallucinations in a subject afflicted by a sleep disorder.
Emotional syncope might also explain Dante’s loss of consciousness. This condition, one of the most common causes of fainting, causes a sudden drop in heart rate and blood pressure. It occurs in response to triggers such as scary, embarrassing or uncomfortable situations, as well as instances of high stress or trauma, similar to those that Dante experiences during his journey.
Finally, another possible, and even more intriguing explanation of Dante’s fainting is related to food/drink depletion. According to the poet, his journey in Hell starts on the night of April 8, 1300, and ends in Paradise one week later, on April 15. During the whole passage through Hell, which lasts about 48 hours, he keeps walking, and he neither eats, nor drinks. Ditto for his journey through Purgatory. Thus, for five days, he goes with no water, and no food — at the same time, he is experiencing heavy emotional distress. After his last collapse in Purgatory, his guide Beatrice throws him into the Lethe river — Dante drinks for the first time in his long journey. He does not faint anymore. But, what about the high temperatures he has to endure while walking in Hell? This is certainly another factor that might have contributed to his distress and caused the multiple syncopes he experiences there.
We’re attempting to diagnose potential disorders that affected Dante’s health. However, we’re basing our diagnosis on events that occurred during his afterlife journey — a journey he describes in the Divine Comedy. Why the debate, then? Maybe passion for medicine and passion for poetry may merge, and provide an intriguing way to practice the art of the elusive diagnosis.
About the author: Michele A. Riva is an historian of medicine at the University of Milano Bicocca and an occupational physician at the San Gerardo Hospital in Monza (Italy). His primary interests are the use of non-medical sources (music, literature, etc.) in history of medicine, history of neuroscience, the development of public health systems, and history of occupational health.
For centuries, people have been expressing themselves through the arts. Disease and mental illness have had a stigma attached for many years. People in the past never discussed the symptoms and consequences of being afflicted. It is entirely possible that the only way artists could express what they were going through in a manner that was considered appropriate would be through their work. Diseases like depression are still not widely discussed in the community today, so many artists such as Van Gogh, took to their art to describe their feelings. The more people understand a disease, the easier it would be for the people affected to feel comfortable with who they are. The famous works of great artists could be over analyzed for their symbolism of disease, but this could take away from the beauty that they portray. Dante’s “Divine Comedy” could give some insight on his medical conditions, such as narcolepsy, but we will never actually know what he was thinking or experiencing at the time he wrote it.
Many of the most brilliant of thinkers throughout history have suffered from some type of condition. Many of us within the community of science or the arts can too often blur the lines between sanity and insanity. The term “tortured genius” comes to mind here. Its no secret the great impact that “The Divine Comedy” had on the world, but was what made it so great rooted in the fact that Dante himself possibly was as many might say, “off his rocker?” People like Edgar Allan Poe, and Vincent Van Gogh were also said to have suffered from some kind of mental disorder but yet were still able to create some of the most influential contributions to art and culture. Using modern medicine to determine the extent of their conditions might be interesting but it could also take away from the simple fact that Dante and many others were able to create works of art despite any handicaps.
The plot of the Divine Comedy is very simple, it is the narrative of Dante’s journey towards redemption and attractive because of the medical allusion it contain Dante’s literature explains the medical problems although he was not proficient in the field of medicine because he was more into public and the political life.
He had studied the basics of the medical science and have a little idea about that which was reflected in his masterpiece the ‘Divine Comedy’, he described the classical optics, the function of human eye and even the visual problem like presbyopia. He described the visual disorder that he suffered when he was 27 year old in his literature, which was related to the disorder called asthenopia, a disorder related to eye where there is fatigue, pain around eyes, eye strain and blurred vision. Due to this some author said that this may be due to the untreated hyperopia. Throughout the Dante’s the ‘Divine Comedy’ there is description of the sleep and dreaming. There were various symptoms like sudden wake-dreaming transitions, short and refreshing naps, visions and hallucinations, unconscious behaviors, episodes of muscle weakness, and falls which are always triggered by strong emotions which direct towards the medical condition of narcolepsy.
Narcolepsy is a chronic brain disorder that involves the poor control of sleep. People with narcolepsy experience frequent excessive daytime sleepiness, comparable to people who don’t have narcolepsy. Dante’s seems to suffer from this disorder as Reverie, dreams, visions, the dark woods of somnolent confusion – all these are beautifully evoked in Dante’s tour from hell to heaven, The Divine Comedy. Where did he get it all from? Dante may be narcoleptic, which causes people to drift off suddenly at all times of day.
It is very possible that through Dante’s writing we can perceive his affliction. This would not be the only author or artist, rather, who through their work of art, have given us a glimpse of their health. Van Gogh’s acute psychosis, for example, can be relayed in his works of art both directly and indirectly. “The Starry Night” was painted looking through a window in an asylum while his “Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear” is a more direct representation of his suffering.
It cannot be refuted that these distressed emotional states that could be due to underlying disorders may very well be responsible for the revolutionary works of various artists from musicians, to painters, to writers.
The idea of creativity and mental illness has been bound together for centuries. It just makes the most sense that abnormal processes in the brain would lead to abnormal, but unique and creative works of art. If the wiring is different, why wouldn’t imaginative function follow? A recent article from Frontiers in Psychology discusses the problems with determining if creativity and mental illness are truly associated. The author goes on to say that more detailed, systematic studies are needed to answer the question and I agree. What is creativity? How can medical conditions augment creativity? Pain, fear, desperation and anger can be seen and heard in works of art and music, many of which are attributed to those that “have a few screws loose”, but what about the works that elicit joy, love, serenity and hope? Could the creators of these inspiring works have medical conditions as well?
I agree that the analysis of art through medicine is a positive route to take, but an open, objective mind must be maintained, and a systematic approach must be established. Sometimes an illness contributes to creativity, sometimes it is purely imagination that produces the wildest creations. In addition, there may be unknown factors. Either way, fully understanding how the medical and psychological condition of the human being can contribute to creativity and expression may deepen our understanding of humanity’s mind, body and soul.
Indeed a ‘masterpiece,’ Dante’s Divine Comedy, as conferred again and again by historical researchers. According to Riva, M. A., et al. authors of “Dante and Cardiology: Physiopathology and Clinical Features of Cardiovascular Diseases in the Middle Ages” states the Divine Comedy as an epic poem that describes Dante’s imaginative and allegorical travel through hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. To ‘dream’ of hell or more seemingly a nightmare more rather than to be interpreted as a ‘dream’.
It is understood that Dante had an extent of knowledge that may have afforded him an emphatic grasp on creating such profound work, that leave many questions to be asked. According to research, Dante was versed in a level of medical knowledge which are only based on assumptions. I believe in understanding Dante’s background can give insight to where and why such imaginary thoughts showed up in his poem. Dante’s work may be translated back to a state of medical health because of the presumed affiliations he had. Records of where he received his education and the educational path he took are not known. Contrary to what is not found on his educational background, Dante had an interest in that “art of healing” and evidenced by his affiliation to the Florentine Guild of Physicians and Apothecaries. His name was found on a medical guild list which he joined in 1927, seven years prior to his work Divine Comedy. The authors’ state Dante is constantly depicted wearing a red robe which is associated with the color of the guild and still is the color of the academic dress of medical faculties.
In a quest to diagnose Dante’s potential disorders based on what is described in his journey leaves much to be desired based on readings, Dante’s prior life affiliations and interest may have very well appealed to his writings. Considering the theories and concepts brought forth by Aristotle and Galen at the time, could they have strongly influenced his “imaginative” and “allegorical” Divine Comedy? Moreover, the symptoms mentioned in the poem which may be attributed to cardiovascular disorders mentioned in Dante’s work can offer some medical insight to Clinician, as to the progression of these symptoms as it corresponds to present-day ailments.
Once again, there is a recurring question about Dante’s masterpiece: is all just a dream? It could be, unless it wasn’t. Why do we want to get into Dante’s head? We can read the Divine Comedy and take what is helpful to us, what inspires us, or we can debate forever what was in Dante’s head, which we’ll never know. It’s a debate out of our own dreams. So I would venture to say that Dante’s dream (or not dream) inspires people to dream, and inspires medical scholars to dream of his diseases (or not diseases). At the end, we are in a world of dreams. I would also venture to say that by publicly debating their dreams, medical scholars and doctors might get closer to the mind-world of their patients, and understand more of their patients’ feelings and fears. At the end of the day, doctors might get closer to understand patients, and improve their diagnosis and treatment (and in final analysis outcome) because of the changed perspective.