Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 3 | Summary



Crossing a plain with Virgil, Dante makes his way toward Mount Purgatory. Not seeing Virgil's shadow, he panics momentarily, fearing he has lost his guide. Virgil chides then reassures him, explaining that the spirits of the dead have no bodies and therefore no shadows. By the time he finishes his brief sermon on the limits of human knowledge, the two have reached the base of the mountain.

As they are searching for a path up the steep rock face, Dante spies a "tribe of souls" further along the mountain's perimeter. He and Virgil approach them, intending to ask for advice. The souls, however, are awed by Dante's shadow, so Virgil stops to explain, urging them not to "wonder at the sight" of a living man in Purgatory. The souls point them in the right direction, but first one especially noble-looking one asks for a moment of Dante's time. The dead man is King Manfred of Sicily (c. 1232–66), who repented his sins at the moment of his death. Those waiting outside the mountain, Manfred explains, are souls excommunicated by the Church during their lifetimes. These must serve an additional sentence before beginning their purifying climb.


Excommunication, a formal severing of unity with the Church, was the traditional punishment for those who refused to submit to the Church's authority. The decision to excommunicate someone was, first and foremost, a prerogative of the popes, who sometimes wielded excommunication as a political weapon. A similar but broader punishment, known as an interdict, could be used to forbid Catholics in a certain region from celebrating the sacraments or conducting rites of Christian burial.

Dante, in his theological vision of the afterlife, treats excommunication as a kind of "anti-indulgence" which lengthens the duration of one's stay in Purgatory. This interpretation reflects his complicated political view of the papacy. On the one hand, Dante did not have a high opinion of some of the popes themselves. At the same time, he believed the papacy, or the office of the pope, was central to the Church in a way that transcended its individual occupant; thus, he treats excommunication as a kind of aggravating circumstance in a soul's sentencing. The crime, for him, consists not in getting on the pope's bad side, but more importantly in refusing to make amends with the Church at large.

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