MLA honors Steinberg for work on Dante

Susan Allen
News Officer for Arts and HumanitiesUniversity Communications

The Divine Comedy may not seem like a conventional legal thriller, but it shares with that genre a preoccupation with justice and structured systems of punishment and reward.

Prof. Justin Steinberg highlighted the previously unexamined legal aspects of Dante’s 14th-century masterpiece in Dante and the Limits of Law, published by the University of Chicago Press. On Dec. 3, the Modern Language Association awarded the book the 22nd Howard R. Marrarro Prize. The prize will be presented at the MLA’s annual conference in Vancouver in January.

In its citation, the prize selection committee described Dante and the Limits of the Law as “an original and lucid account of the legal context animating and underwriting the Commedia.

Steinberg’s work focuses on Dante’s interest in exceptions to and limits of the law. Steinberg, professor of Italian literature in Romance Languages and Literatures, argues that Dante saw exceptions to the law as an essential aspect of medieval legal order.

Steinberg, who in 2006 won the MLA’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglioni Publication Award for a Manuscript in Italian Literary Studies for his first book, was drawn to the topic because of present-day conversations around the limits of the law. “I was interested in seeing how questions of states of emergency, questions about torture and debates about judicial activism played out in an era without a strong state, where poetic discourse and literary imagination occupied to the place of political sovereignty,” he explained.

The active community of UChicago scholars interested in law and literature—both in the law school and in literature departments—provided important inspiration for Dante and the Limits of the Law. Their work, Steinberg said, helped him realize “this could be a rich inquiry.”

Steinberg was not the only member of the University of Chicago community honored by the MLA. Jason Grunebaum, senior lecturer in South Asian languages and civilizations, received an honorable mention for the Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for an Outstanding Translation of a Literary Work for his translation of Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol. The selection committee praised Grunebaum’s “thoughtfully conceived translation,” which “captures many of the tones and subtleties of the original language.”