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Beside the Law

Beside the Law


(p.127) 4 Beside the Law
Dante and the Limits of the Law
Justin Steinberg
University of Chicago Press

This chapter examines medieval contract law as a framework for understanding the “deals’ Dante’s character makes throughout his journey. In particular, the transactions with monsters, devils, and the damned of Inferno expose the limits of forming binding agreements in the absence of shared conventions and a common ethical perspective. In many ways, contemporary lawyers would have disqualified these infernal deals as instances of a pactum nudum (naked pact)— an informal agreement unprotected by the law and hence effectively “bare.” The chapter further argues that Dante understood that from the standpoint of literary form, the Commedia was itself a type of naked pact. Since he could not adequately fit his “comedy” within traditional models of genre, Dante needed to negotiate the terms of its representational contract directly with readers, as when he swears by his Commedia to the truth of the monster Geryon.

Keywords:   contract law, pactum nudum, genre, representational contract, Geryon, comedy

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