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Dante’s Divine Comedy: Learning in the Margins  

This is a guest blog post from Georgetown University’s The Divine Comedy: Dante’s Journey to Freedom, Part 1 course team. 


If you ask the Internet, medieval literature is best known for its seemingly absurd illustrations.


Knight fighting a snail? Check.

Monkeys defending a castle from a skulk of foxes? Check.

Take blogger Mallory Ortberg over at The Toast. Ortberg offers the compelling case that these illustrations filling the margins are the product of a blundering pair of monks inventing things. The reality of this illustrated commentaryknown as “marginalia”is perhaps a touch less humorous than this, but it’s not far off. Though dismissed for some time as a serious area of study, medieval scholars now point to marginalia as a way for monastic scribes to highlight important passages, include supplemental information, satirize contemporary establishments, and otherwise make dense spiritual texts more relatable to their readers.

Before the printing press, books in the medieval period were primarily the domain of the church, as well as nobles who could afford to commission ornate personal devotionals. In both cases, it was the job of monastic scribes to produce these illuminated manuscripts, sometimes within separate areas of the monasteryknown as scriptoriumset aside for just this use. Left alone with the text, these monks were tasked with meditating on the content, ultimately synthesizing and complementing it with images that reflected their own thoughts and experiences with the reading. As medieval literacy rose and Gutenberg entered the scene, this highly personal, illustrated commentary by the monks was replaced by larger illustrations and a focus on the central text. Today, the most you’ll find in the margin is a note scribbled by previous readers trying to make their own meaning of the text.

That’s where MyDante comes in.

Developed by Georgetown University faculty and the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS), MyDante is an innovative online platform designed to guide students through Divine Comedy using contemplative and communal reading practices. In The Divine Comedy: Dante’s Journey to Freedom, the first of a three-part series of MOOCs exploring the Dante Alighieri epic, students will use the platform to question for themselves the meaning of human freedom, responsibility, and identity as they follow along and respond to the poem in the marginsthat is, right next to a digital version of the text in MyDante.

As a technology of contemplation, the medieval manuscript was embedded in the communal structures of monastic living, so that a monk would share the fruits of his individual study of a text with other members of the community. Similarly, we hoped that MyDante could help students to benefit from one another’s reflections on the text. – Professor Frank Ambrosio

Neither MyDante nor the Dante MOOCs are new territory for GeorgetownX. The MyDante project began in 2000 as part of the undergraduate philosophy class “Dante and the Christian Imagination” which asked students, in part, to consider the role of the imagination—something very personal and distinct to each individual—in the formation of culture and worldviews. Inspired by the model of marginalia, the online component allows students to engage with and rethink the poem by adding their own imaginings of its meaning and cultural relevance to the margins, directly alongside the text, very much in the style of medieval monks.

Unlike those monks, students in the Dante MOOCs aren’t confined to illustration in conveying their thoughts, but there’s nothing stopping them: in this modern take on marginalia, students are encouraged to share annotations, sounds, and videos, as well as images, that illustrate their personal journey with the poem. If that journey happens to take the form of a knight fighting a snail, just be prepared to walk your peers through that logic.

The Divine Comedy: Dante’s Journey to Freedom, Part I is a free, eight-week course launching March 15. The course is open to everyone – enroll now at edX.org.