The historical period Dante lived in was the late Middle Ages, especially the XIV century. This century will see, just after Dante, the agony and death of the traditional Medieval culture, that is the one formed mainly by the influence of the Church, the Roman classical tradition and the German populations. Politically speaking, two were the auctoritates in the world: the Emperor and the Pope: the former represented the temporal power, the latter the religious power.
In Italy, there was no political union, but the country was divided into many different town councils. The political parties were two: the Guelfi and the Ghibellini. The former ones were in favor of the Pope and the latter ones were in favor of the emperor. At the beginning of the XIV century, the Guelfi led most of the councils in Italy. In Florence, the Guelfo party split in two parts: the whites (bianchi, in favor of the Emperor) and the blacks (neri, in favor of the Pope). Dante was a white guelfo. The years around 1300 where the ones in which political fights between whites and blacks became stronger and more dramatic.
In this period (especially between 1280 and 1310) a new poetical movement was born: the Stilnovo (the name, invented by Dante (see Purgatorio, XXIV, ll. 55–57) is the Italian for "new style"). It was really a new way to intend and to write poetry and was founded by Guido Guinizzelli (a poet who lived in Bologna) but widely diffused only in Tuscany, especially in Florence. The most important Stilnovo poets were Dante himself, his friend Guido Cavalcanti and Cino da Pistoia. This movement used the poetical art only to speak about love, to celebrate it. To do this, the Stilnovo poems were a deep analysis of the love feeling, even psychologically: the result is a sort of love theory. In this theory, love is seen as an absolute ideal, a sort of god, which is able to ennoble and save man; women are seen as angels, and often celebrated as examples of purity and virtue. So, the work of art must see the contents perfectly melted with the form: the poet has to use a precise and specific vocabulary and speak about love directly (they’re metaphorically seen as love’s scribes).
Another important cultural debate was the one about language to be used in literary works (the questione della lingua). It consisted in choosing either Latin or an Italian dialect (vernacular) to write the works. The Italian dialects were various, since Italy was neither culturally nor politically united. Dante proposed his solution to this tecnical problem in the De vulgari eloquentia.