Onorate l’altissimo poeta
The Oxford Dante Society Today
The Oxford Dante Society is the second oldest Dante Society in the world. An academic society closely linked with Oxford University, it normally meets three times a year to hear and discuss a paper given by one of its members or by a visiting speaker. Papers may be concerned with aspects of Dante’s life, work or times, with issues of interpretation and scholarship, or with the reception of his works in Italy and other countries since his death in 1321, including the responses to his work of later artists, writers and musicians. Some members of the society are Italian specialists. The majority have other specialisms, covering various European literatures, art and music, from classical to modern times, or aspects of the history and thought of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
The interaction of scholars and critics from various disciplines has been the main reason for the longevity and continuing success of the society. It has led to the publication of significant collections of essays by society members and to frequent engagement with a wider public. A recent example has been the promotion of the Paget Toynbee public lectures, named after the second Secretary of the Society, who was one of Oxford’s most distinguished Dante scholars in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In the autumn of this 700th anniversary year of Dante’s death, the Society is organizing the Oxford Dante Festival, comprising public lectures, exhibitions, film and performances. There will also be various publications involving society members, most importantly a very substantial collection of essays (Dante Beyond Borders: see under Publications below) with contributions from members of the Dante Societies in Germany and the USA as well as Oxford.
The Society was founded in 1876, thus becoming the second such association in the world: the German equivalent (the Deutsche Dante-Gesellschaft) was founded in 1865, and the American Dante Society in 1881, all three associations reflecting the global dimension of Dante’s critical fortune in the late nineteenth century.
The Centenary Essays on Dante (Oxford University Press, 1965) by members of the Oxford Dante Society, edited by Colin Hardie and published for the seventh centenary of the poet’s birth, concludes with a brief history of the Society (pp. 143-4). The first paragraph reads as follows:
The Oxford Dante Society owes its origin to the Rev. Edward Moore, Principal of St. Edmund Hall, in conjunction with Signor de Tivoli (Taylorian lecturer in Italian), the Rev. H.F. Tozer (Exeter), the Rev. G.W. Kitchin (Christ Church) and the Rev. E.G. Livingstone (Pembroke), and its first meeting was held in St. Edmund Hall on 24 November 1876. The Society was to meet once a term (and the day came to be fixed to the fifth Tuesday of each term), being entertained to dinner (‘of an ordinary description’) by the members in turn. The objects of the Society were defined as ‘to read papers and discuss subjects connected with Dante; to encourage mutual inquiry as to critical, historical and other points relating to his works; to interchange information as to new books, reviews, monographs, etc., and generally to stimulate and forward the study of the Divina Commedia, and other works of Dante and of his age.’ A paper was to be read at each meeting by a member ‘as far as possible in rotation in order of seniority’. The Society consisted at the outset of ten members, but the number was later increased to twelve and for a time to fifteen. There are also Honorary Members, not included in the quota. Meetings have been held regularly without interruption, except in November 1914, and in November 1939, May 1941, and February 1942. The Society has no officers except an honorary secretary, of which there have been four, Edward Moore, Paget Toynbee, W. H. V. Reade, and C. G. Hardie.
Since then the Society has continued to meet without interruption for papers to be read, usually on the same dates, until the onset of the Covid pandemic, during which one meeting was held, on line, in February 2021. There have been four further Secretaries, Cecil Grayson, John Woodhouse, Valerio Lucchesi, Peter Hainsworth, and the current incumbent Richard Cooper, Master of St Benet’s Hall. The membership has been extended beyond fifteen, but is still limited to persons with a strong Oxford connection. Outside speakers are invited from time to time.
See Federica Coluzzi, ‘The Oxford Dante Society, the Early Years (1876-1921)‘, and Richard Cooper, ‘The Oxford Dante Society: the last Hundred Years (1921-2020)’, in Dante Beyond Borders (cit. below).
Some past and forthcoming books about Dante by the Society and its members
Centenary Essays on Dante, by members of the Oxford Dante Society, ed. Colin Hardie (Oxford University Press, 1965)
The World of Dante: Essays on Dante and his times, by members of the Oxford Dante Society, ed. Cecil Grayson (Clarendon Press, 1980)
Dante Beyond Borders: Contexts and Reception, eds Nick Havely and Jonathan Katz with Richard Cooper (Legenda, Summer 2021), details at http://www.mhra.org.uk/publications/Dante-Beyond-Borders
The Oxford Dante Handbook, eds Manuele Gragnolati, Elena Lombardi and Francesca Southerden (Oxford University Press, March 2021), details at https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-oxford-handbook-of-dante-9780198820741?cc=gb&lang=en