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Archive for the ‘Ernst H. Kantorowicz’ Category

Presentation by Amanda C. Barton 2.6.12

To introduce our discussion of The King’s Two Bodies, I turn to Marie Axton’s comment on the peculiar metaphor of the two-bodied monarch:

Prior to England’s break with Rome and immediately after, English common lawyers “were formulating an idea of the state as a perpetual corporation, yet they were unable or unwilling to separate state and monarch. Their concept of the king’s two bodies was an attempt to deal with a paradox: men died and the land endured; kings died, the crown survived; individual subjects died but subjects always remained to be governed. Perhaps the lawyers were unwilling to envisage England itself as a perpetual corporation because the law had always vested land in a person” (12).

Hence, in Tudor common law we see an articulation of “pre-nation” abstractions of the corporate state.  It is important to note that this metaphor is separate from, but related to, the notion of the subjects as the members (ie, body parts such as hands, feet and stomach) of the state and the monarch as the head. The the metaphor of the two-bodied monarch is also distinct, looking even further back, from the metaphor of the king marrying the land.  However, there are some important themes of notions of corporality and the relationship of abstract state and physical land running through all of these that are important.

Detail from the frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, depicting the monarch as the head of the state's corporate body.

History and Reception

Published in 1957, Kantorowicz’s study, which ranges across the Middle Ages and late Antiquity, was immediately well-received and has remained an important text. Reviewers compared Kantorowicz’s methodology to Frederic William Maitland’s Domesday Book and Beyond: Three Essays in the Early History of England (1897). Despite near universal acclaim, reviewers, even those who praised the text, took issue with aspects of the text: 1) its “too-much-ness,” the excess of material at the expense of cogency (Antony Black called it “a masterpiece of erudite confusion”; 2) not enough discussion of practical politics, how did this metaphysical legal theory affect day-to-day court cases?; 3) despite the nimiety, it was thin on discussion of the papacy.

Kantorowicz was born in Posen, Prussia (now Poznan, Poland) in 1895. He held a post at Frankfurt from 1930 to 1934, when he refused to take the oath to Adolf Hitler. In 1938, he left Germany for the US and accepted a position at Berkeley. He moved to Princeton in 1951 after leaving UC-Berkeley because he refused to take the loyalty oath required during McCarthy’s anti-communism investigations.

The Argument <<l’état c’est moi>>

The King’s Two Bodies explores the paradox of the two-bodied sovereign in Renaissance and medieval jurisprudence: the king has both a body natural and a body politic; the king is immortal, never underage, incapable of doing or thinking wrong, invisible, cannot judge but is “the Fountain of Justice,” is omnipresent in all his courts. Kantorowicz’s study attempts “to understand . . . certain axioms of a political theology, which mutatis mutandis was to remain valid until the twentieth century, began to be developed during the later Middle Ages”(xviii). “Political theology” is associated with Carl Schmitt’s description of authoritarian governments; Kantorowicz prefers this term to “political thought” used by his reviewers because “theology” encompasses metaphysical aspects of this legal philosophy and its relationship to medieval Christian theology.

Kantorowicz explores the christological nature of the discussion of these legal speculations, by beginning his study with a specific case in Tudor jurisprudence and working backwards through the Middle Ages. He notes that through this conception the king acquires a character angelicus, the body politic represents the “Immutable within Time” (8). This development seems most particularly indebted to the organic unity of the “sacred” and “secular” during the Middle Ages, that is, the line was not nearly as bright, and there were “cross-relations between Church and State” in nearly every century (193). For example, consider the imperial appearance of the sacerdotium. Perrhaps most useful, Kantorowicz analyzes the semiotic switch that takes place between the terms corpus verum and corpus mysticum (the terms for the Host and the Church) and how it influenced medieval notions of corporation.

Pertinent passages from Plowden’s Report

. . . by the Common Law no Act which the King does as King, shall be defeated by his Nonage. For the King has in him two Bodies, viz., a Body natural, and a Body politic. His Body natural (if it be considered in itself) is a Body mortal, subject to all Infirmities that come by Nature or Accident, to the Imbecility of Infancy or old Age, and to the like Defects that happen to the natural Bodies of other People. But his Body politic is a Body that cannot be seen or handled, consisting of Policy and Government, and constituted for the Direction of the People, and the Management of the public weal, and this Body is utterly void of Infancy, and old Age, and other natural Defects and Imbecilities, which the Body natural is subject to, and for this Cause, what the King does in his Body politic, cannot be invalidated or frustrated by any Disability in his natural Body. (Kantorowicz 7).

For when the Body politic of King of this Realm is conjoined to the Body natural, and one Body is made of them both, the Degree of the Body natural, and of the things possessed in that Capacity is thereby altered, and the Effects thereof are changed by its Union with the other Body, and don’t remain in their former Degree, but partake of the Effects of the Body politic. . . . And the Reason thereof is, because the Body politic wipes away every Imperfection of the other Body, with which it is consolidated, and makes it to be another Degree than it should be if it were along by itself. . . . And the Cause [in a parellel case] was not because the Capacity of the Body natural was drowned by the Dignity royal . . . , but the Reason was, because to the Body natural, in which he held the land, the Body politic was associated and conjoined, during which Association or Conjunction the Body natural partakes of the Nature and Effects of the Body politic. (11)

The King has two Capacities, for he has two Bodies, the one whereof is a Body natural, consisting of natural Members as every other Man has, and in this he is subject to Passions and Death as other Men are; the other is a Body politic, and the Members thereof are his Subjects, and he and his Subjects together compose the Corporation, as Southcote said, and his is incorporated with them, and they with him, and he is the Head, and they are the Members, and he has the sole Government of them; and this Body is not subject to Passions as the other is, nor to Death, for as to this Body the King never dies, and his natural Death is not called in our Law (as Harper said), the Death of the King, but the Demise of the King, not signifying by the Word (Demise) that the Body politic of the King is dead, bu that there is a Separation of the two Bodies, and that the Body politic is transferred and conveyed over from the Body natural now dead, or now removed from the Dignity royal, to another Body natural. So that it signifies a Removal of the Body politic of the King of this Realm from one Body natural to another. (13)

Selected bibliography

Axton, Marie. The Queen’s Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession.  London: Royal Historical Society, 1977.

Kantorowicz, Ernst H. The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U P, 1985.

Maitland, Frederic William. Domesday Book and Beyond: Three Essays in the Early History of England. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge U P, 1897.

Schmitt, Carl. Political theology: four chapters on the concept of sovereignty. Trans. George Schwab. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1985. 

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