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by Dante Alighieri

Purgatorio Purgatory Canto XX (Fifth Terrace: the Avaricious and the Prodigal) Summary

  • The avaricious pope is sick of Dante now, so Dante wisely decides to leave, reining in the countless questions he still has. Of course, as a poet Dante can’t simply say, “I left him alone even though I wanted to talk more,” but instead says “I drew my unquenched sponge out of the water.”
  • Virgil leads the way, finding walking room wherever the path isn’t completely covered by prostrate penitents.
  • Now comes a condemnation from Dante. He starts ranting about a wolf that’s very hungry. Sound familiar? Even vaguely? Perhaps it’s that starving she-wolf that threatened Dante in Inferno Canto I (learn more in Shmoop's coverage of Inferno).
  • Looks like it, because Dante prays at length for someone to come and drive her (the wolf) away.
  • Virgil, a smart man, keeps walking and Dante follows suit. As they travel, they notice the souls around them lamenting and crying.
  • One voice calls out, like a woman giving birth (in other words, quite painfully), “Sweet Mary!” Then she describes how Mary's act of giving birth to Jesus in a stable demonstrates how poor she was.
  • The penitents proceed to call out further examples of poverty and generosity, the cures to their sins of avarice and prodigality.
  • Another voice praises Fabricius, who “chose… indigence with virtue rather than much wealth with vice.”
  • Time for a history lesson: Fabricius was a Roman consul who tried to censor the Romans’ materiality and refused to accept bribes to further his political career.
  • This show of humility pleases Dante so much that he steps forward, trying to find the speaker; now the voice is chanting about Saint Nicholas, who donated money to poor girls so they could get married.
  • Dante asks the speaking soul who he is and why it’s only he that talks about such good role models. To get him to talk, Dante promises him prayers when he returns to the living world.
  • The penitent soul agrees, but specifies that he’s doing it not for the prayers, but simply because Dante looks like he’s in God’s grace.
  • We quickly learn that this guy loves metaphors as much as Dante. He introduces himself not with a “Hi, my name is…” but with “I was the root of the obnoxious plant that overshadows all the Christian lands…”
  • He goes on to name four cities that would like to take vengeance on him and prays to God that they might do it.
  • Another quick history lesson: these four French cities (Bouai, Lille, Ghent, and Bruges) have reason to want revenge against the speaker because he pretty much devastated them in a bloody episode of the Flemish wars.
  • He names himself as Hugh Capet, a king of France, who had lots of sons named Louis and Philip.
  • Surprisingly, Hugh tells us he was not of royal blood. Instead, he was the son of a butcher. However, when the current king died without an heir, Hugh somehow took control and—unsurprisingly—crowned his own son king after that.
  • When a marriage in Provence allowed Hugh to take the throne, all hell broke loose.
  • His family—the Capetians—started seizing cities, killing people, and poisoning enemies.
  • Out of nowhere, Hugh starts prophesying. He sees a man named Charles coming out of France to seek eternal fame. (Read: to become king and make the whole family proud and, of course. royal.) This Charles doesn’t carry weapons… sounds good, right?... except the “lance that Judas tilted.” Oh, not so good. Armed (or unarmed) with this, he brings “shame and sin” upon himself.
  • History lesson #3: This is Charles of Valois, sent by Boniface VIII to make peace with Florence. Except that he ended up throwing that cause out the window in favor of ratcheting up the power of the Black party (Dante’s hated rivals) so much that they exiled the Whites (with Dante). In short, he’s a backstabber.
  • Then Hugh foresees another Charles, defeated at war, selling his daughter like pirates might sell slave girls.
  • History lesson #4: This is Charles II of Anjou, who was taken prisoner in a naval battle and ended up marrying his youngest daughter off for a large sum of money.
  • Hugh laments that his house has fallen so low—to the point of trafficking their children for money.
  • Had enough yet? No? Okay then, how about when Philip the Fair, one of Hugh’s sons, kidnapped Pope Boniface VIII and had him tortured. Hugh compares Pope Boniface to Christ, who was equally mocked and tormented. Philip’s henchmen are so evil that Hugh compares them to the “new Pilate,” (the official by whose orders Christ was crucified).
  • Finally, Hugh turns back to Dante and tells him that this is how he and his fellow penitents talk all day. Well, it must be a blast to hang out with them. But at night, he says, they recite contrary examples. In other words, examples of avarice. Brace yourselves.
  • So we start with Pygmalion, Queen Dido’s husband who tried to murder her for her inheritance.
  • Then, Hugh goes on, they talk about King Midas, who, out of greed, made everything he touched turn to gold.
  • Then Achan, who, against Joshua’s orders, stole from the spoils of a battle which had been consecrated to God.
  • Then Sapphira, who—with her husband Heliodorus—secretly withheld some money which was dedicated to the Apostles.
  • Then Polymnestor, King of Thrace, who, when Polydorus came from King Priam with gift of gold and a request for help, simply killed him and kept the gold.
  • Finally, the most famous of all: Crassus. A member of a the famous Roman triumvirate (which in Latin means “coalition of three men”) who ruled Rome along with Julius Caesar and Pompey, his greed was so well known that when he was finally defeated, his enemies poured molten gold down his throat to kill him.
  • To explain why his is the only voice Dante hears, Hugh tell us that sometimes the penitents sing loudly or softly—depending on their mood—and it just so happens that he’s singing the loudest today.
  • Finally, Dante leaves him. We imagine he’s as tired of the name-dropping as we are.
  • Before Virgil and Dante have gone far, there’s an earthquake! The whole mountain shakes and Dante nearly pees his pants.
  • But, of course, he’s not too scared to make up a metaphor. He compares the trembling mountain to the trembling of the island of Delos when the goddess Latona gave birth to the twins that would eventually become the sun and moon—Apollo and Diana.
  • Back to our mountain. To comfort Dante, Virgil tells him not to be afraid.
  • However, the penitents don’t seem to be wetting themselves. In fact, they seem quite happy. Happy enough to sing the hymn “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” The song stops Dante in his tracks and he listens, stunned, until they finish.
  • As soon as the quake ends, they start moving again. Curiously, the penitents have had a severe mood swing. Instead of singing joyfully, they’re now crying again.
  • Dante feels confused; our genius is at his wit’s end. He can’t understand penitents’ behavior. And he doesn’t dare ask Virgil, because he’s all “make haste” and whatnot. So, Dante wisely shuts his mouth and follows Virgil.

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