Oaks in Dante's Divine Comedy

Sandro Botticelli's portrait of Dante Alighieri, showing him crowned with the traditional laurel wreath

Over the first hundred days of 2018 I have read Dante’s Divine Comedy, as part of an en masse reading organized on Twitter by Pablo Maurette, an Argentine Literature Professor and author at the University of Chicago. Thousands of readers spread across the globe read one canto per day of the classic poem, and exchanged comments and engaged in debates under the hashtag #Dante2018. It was a motley crew: participants covered the range from non-literary newcomers to erudite scholars and artists, and discussion was lively.

What has this to do with oaks? Well, as you might expect for one of the major works of Western literature, our favorite genus is not absent. There are four mentions of oaks in the Divine Comedy, and I will deal with them in the order they appear: three in the second section of the poem, covering Dante’s passage through Purgatory, and one in the final section, which chronicles his ascent through Paradise.

 

1. Purgatorio 14, ll. 43-45

Tra brutti porci, più degni di galle
che d’altro cibo fatto in uman uso,
dirizza prima il suo povero calle.

That river starts its miserable course
among foul hogs, more fit for acorns than
for food devised to serve the needs of man.

 

The river Dante refers is the Arno, which flows through his native Florence. He speaks of the river in unflattering terms because he is describing the decadence and corruption of his fellow countrymen. So the river begins its 

Illustration from the Book of Hours,
France, Angers or Nantes, ca. 1440: feeding acorns to hogs. © Morgan Library, New York

miserable itinerary in the mountains of Casentino, among foul hogs who feed on acorns, which here Dante describes as not fit for human consumption. At least, that is how translators interpret the word Dante uses: “galle” is more precisely “galls”, but apparently by the fourteenth century the word had already taken on by antonomasia the extended meaning of “acorn.” However, I have my doubts. In a previous post, I had written about acorns in Don Quijote, where Cervantes has his protagonist share toasted acorns with a group of goatherds, and subsequently embark on a post-prandial speech about the Golden Age when humans fed on acorns. And Dante himself, as we shall see below, refers to acorns as food for humans in a pre-lapsarian world.

It may be that Dante is saying that in his time it is only pigs that can eat acorns, but it may also be that Dante specifically meant galls, which would indeed be unpalatable and undesirable for humans and perhaps not fit even for hogs. (Oak galls have high tannic acid content and are apparently the most astringent vegetable compound in existence.) It is also true that Dante may have chosen to use galle instead of ghiande (acorn) in order to rhyme with povero calle (miserable course). In any case, it is clear that Dante had a very poor opinion of the inhabitants of Casentino.

2. Purgatorio 22, ll. 148-50

Lo secol primo, quant’ oro fu bello,
fé savorose con fame le ghiande,
e nettare con sete ogne ruscello.

The first age was as fair as gold: when hungry,
men found the taste of acorns good; when thirsty,
they found that every little stream was nectar.

 

Eight cantos later, acorns are now food for humans (in the Golden Age, mind you), thought not exactly a delicacy. In this canto we are entering the sixth terrace of purgatory, where souls purge the sin of gluttony. Acorns are mentioned as food for the hungry in a list of instances where the virtuous have avoided gluttony by making do with what nourishment was available, avoiding excess or even enjoyment. Also in the list is John the Baptist, who fed on locusts while in the wilderness. One assumes that when one is not famished, acorns would be anything but tasty. This contrasts with Cervantes’ treatment of acorns as food in Don Quijote (see above), but we should remember that Cervantes would have had access to the sweet acorns of Quercus rotundifolia, whereas Dante is likely to have only tasted acorns from the Italian peninsula, none of which are sweet.

3. Purgatorio 31, ll. 70-73

Con men di resistenza si dibarba
robusto cerro, o vero al nostral vento
vero a quel de la terra di Iarba,

ch’io non levai al suo comando il mento;

There’s less resistance in the sturdy oak
to its uprooting by a wind from lands
of ours or lands of Iarbas than I showed

in lifting up my chin at her command;

 

Dante has just encountered his beloved Beatrice and she has launched into a tirade of reproach, principally 

Dante with Beatrice in Gustave Doré's illustration of Purgatorio 21

accusing Dante of not being faithful to her after she had died. The reproach seems harsh: Dante and Beatrice only met twice, once when they were nine and again when they were 18; then Beatrice died aged 24, three years after marrying another man. Nevertheless, Dante is so cowed by her rebuke, that he hangs his head and stands “as children, when ashamed, will stand, their eyes/upon the ground.” Beatrice commands him to lift his face and look her in the eye, but Dante feels an unsurmountable resistance to do so, a resistance he compares to that of an oak that resists a strong wind, even a gale blowing from Libya in the south (the land where King Iarbas is said to have ruled).

Note that Dante refers not to any oak, but specifically to a cerro, the common name for Quercus cerris (Turkey oak). And the adjective he chooses to qualify his cerro, robusto (robust), derives from the Latin word robur, meaning hard-wood, power, and strength, and also the name of a specific oak (Quercus robur).

4. Paradiso 22, ll. 85-87

La carne d’i mortali è tanto blanda,
che giù non basta buon cominciamento
dal nascer de la quercia al far la ghianda.

The flesh of mortals yields so easily—
on earth a good beginning does not run
from when the oak is born until the acorn.

 

In the seventh heaven of paradise, Dante meats Saint Benedict, founder of the Benedictine order of monks. The saint complains about the degeneration of his order, whose abbeys have become dens of thieves, and whose monks are tempted by the fruits of earthly riches, which make their hearts “go mad with greed”. He notes

Augustus Ceasar wearing the corona civica of oak leaves © Heritage History

ruefully that human endeavors may be founded on admirable ideals, but these ideals soon degenerate and do not last longer than one or two decades. To describe this short period of time, he defines it as that which elapses between the moment an oak germinates and that when it produces its first acorn. By using oaks as a biological time piece, Dante contrasts the fallibility and fickleness of humans to the steadfastness, solidity, and endurance of our favorite trees.

Dante is usually pictured wearing a laurel wreath around his head, a traditional crown for poets that dates back to Ancient Greece. However, there is only one mention of a laurel in the Divine Comedy. Given the various references to oaks in his masterpiece, perhaps it would be more appropriate to imagine him with a crown of oak leaves, like the civic crown awarded to outstanding military leaders in Ancient Rome.


Quotations from the Divine Comedy in English are taken from Allen Mandelbaum's translation.