Dante REALLY Doesn’t Like Fraud but What is a Simoniac?

Fraud Explained

Why is fraud so harshly punished in Dante’s allegory? Fraud is a crime against the mind. It is, in effect, gaslighting.

When I was reading Dante in college, there was a lot of surprise that murder was not farther down in Hell than fraud. In the 21st century, murder is THE crime which is punished the most harshly by the law. We have over a century’s worth of detective fiction backing that classification up too.

What is fraud when murder in involved? Well, that’s how things work in the real world.

Dante’s Inferno is not the real world–not by a long shot. It’s an allegory.

So, allegorically, why would fraud be worse than murder?

Fraud makes you believe false things are true. Think of it as fake news disinformation, conspiracy theory, even heavily edited photos.


Dorothy Sayers’s commentaries in her translation of Inferno give some very thorough definitions which take into account both the allegory and the reality. I’ve included some of them below with links to one of the many online dictionaries for more modern definitions.

Simoniacs: Simony is the act of selling holy things, like relics, sacraments, church offices, and so forth.

This is the famed hole where each pope is put in head first, pushing his predecessor further down into the molten rock around him.

Simoniacs are people who literally sell what belongs to God. Think of anyone who “sells” church memberships (remember all those fraudulent televangelists?) or “sells” you a version of reality that will never exist. It’s the guru who charges you to learn from him. Or the priest who will not give you a sacrament until you pay a small “fee.”

It’s not just confined to religion, however. For instance, someone who is part of a religious organization just for personal profit could also be considered a simoniac.

Sorcerers: People who abuse psychic gifts for their own profit.

Given the resurgence of astrology and Tarot, I felt this one also needed a little explanation. Dante is referring to a very specific form of psychic abuse here. These are people who deliberately use their gifts to foretell the future as if it’s an already-decided thing.

In general, things like astrological charts were not exactly frowned upon in Medieval Europe. They assumed the movements of the stars and planets had innate meaning in them and so the study and, indeed, consulting one’s star chart wasn’t considered a sin.

If anything, it was prudent and showed respect for the order in the Universe. It was a tool to use-not an oracle.

Barrators: The Medieval Lobbyists and Special-Interest Groups

Barrators were politicians who “sold” political offices. Pay enough money, and you too can rule the city. Push through this piece of legislation and you will get re-elected. Support this cause and you’ll get nominated for this office.

Uh-huh. It existed back then too.

Today, barratry has a slightly different definition, as you will see when you follow the link.

It should be noted that Dante was accused of being a barrator during his tenure in office in Florence.

Personally, I doubt he was. Florence had a reputation for causing problems and for being conniving. Remember Catherine of Siena?

Counsellors of Fraud: People who got others to commit fraud.

These are people who didn’t necessarily commit fraud themselves, but who got other people to commit fraud for them. There are one step below the thieves because while thieves just steal material goods, these people steal people’s dignity.

Ulysses (i.e. Odysseus) is in this level for suggesting the Trojan horse and for other fraud he committed on his journey back to Ithaca. Of course, we can expect this. Rome, thanks to Virgil, claimed they were descendants of Troy. Ulysses fought for the Greeks.

The voyage Ulysses recounts to Dante is entirely of Dante’s own creation. Incidentally, it was the inspiration behind Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem of the same name.

Falsifiers: People who create counterfeit products, money, etc.

Need I say more?

I think today, we can add to this people who create “fake food.” You know, the food that’s full of fake additives?

Which of these definitions took you by surprise and why? Let me know in the comments below!

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