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.