The King's Two Bodies

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The King's Two Bodies
The King's Two Bodies.jpg
AuthorErnst Kantorowicz
PublisherPrinceton University Press
Media typePrint
Pages616 pp.

The King's Two Bodies (subtitled, A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology) is a 1957 historical book by Ernst Kantorowicz. It concerns medieval political theology and the distinctions separating the "body natural" (a monarch's corporeal being) and the "body politic".[1]

The book has had significant influence on the field of medieval studies, even as its methods and style of argumentation are viewed with wariness by contemporary scholars.[2] It is the recipient of the Haskins medal from the Medieval Academy of America.[3]

Stephen Greenblatt has said that the book is a "remarkably vital, generous, and generative work,"[2] while the historian Morimichi Watanabe called it a "monumental classic."[3] Others have called it both "an unnoticed volume on the shelves" while remaining important and influential in disciplines including art history.[4] It is also said to have more admirers than readers.[5] Horst Bredekamp, an art historian, has referred to the book as a "continuous success".[4] It has been kept in print since 1957 by Princeton University Press and has been translated into French, German, Italian, and Spanish.[4]

Scholarly technique in the book includes use of art, philosophy, religion, law, numismatics, and archaeology.


The King's Two Bodies is described by historian Paul Monod as "boldly conceived, meticulously researched, and beautifully written." It attempts to show how a monarchical state developed out of Christian religious beliefs, specifically as articulated in mid-Tudor England. At that time, English legal doctrine saw the physical body of the ruler as joined to a "perfect, immutable and eternal body of the whole polity." Kantorowicz then argues that this is a culmination of Catholic teachings about the body of Christ.[6]


The book is structured around an exploration of the numerous devices and technologies medieval theologians and lawyers developed to "defeat death" and "extend bodily existence far beyond carnal boundaries."[2]

Kantorowicz's magnum opus does not follow a linear or chronological structure. Some scholars have said it is "free-minded and unsystematic," like "a happy society of fairies and spiders had come together to weave a learned web."[7] It begins with an introduction to the theme of the King's "two bodies" as found in the reports of Edmund Plowden, an Elizabethan jurist. It then revisits the appearance of the same ideas as developed by Shakespeare in King Richard II. The problem and its horizon of enquiry has now been established for the reader: what makes the "juridical fiction" of the symbolic body of the king possible?[8]

The author's excavation of these threads was not without controversy. Among Edmund Plowden's Reports, for instance, was a dispute over whether or not King Edward VI held the duchy of Lancaster as private property, or whether it belonged to the crown. The lawyer's argued the latter:

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 … 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.[9]

While medievalist F.W. Maitland saw in remarks like this "metaphysical nonsense", Kantorowicz perceived "a mystical fiction with theological roots, unconsciously transferred by Tudor jurists to the myth of the State".[10][11]

The remainder of the text — the argument proper — then turns to "Christ-centered Kingship," "Law-centered Kingship" and "Polity-centered Kingship." These are a rough taxonomy of the multiple manifestations of mystical and corporeal kingship, which Kantorowicz's tracks throughout history in a variety of cultures. The final three sections address respectively continuity and corporations (drawing on F. W. Maitland's analysis of "The Crown as Corporation"[12]), the immortality of the king (as transcendental, not physical, body) and "Man-centered kingship" which contains a close discussion of the work of Dante Alighieri.

Reception and influence[edit]

A primary reason[citation needed] for a revival of interest in Kantorowicz's work in the post-WWII era was the use of the work by Michel Foucault in his classic Discipline and Punish, where he drew a parallel between the duality of the king and the body of a man condemned.[13] Reworkings of (and homages to) Kantorowicz's title have included The Queen's Two Bodies,[14] The Pope's Body,[15] The King's Two Maps,[16] the People's Two Bodies,[17] the King's Other Body,[18] and more.[10]

One of the more notable[citation needed] controversies involving Kantorowicz's legacy was Norman Cantor's claim that Kantorowicz was one of two "Nazi twins" (the other being Percy Ernst Schramm) due to the popular reception of his book on Frederick II among members of the Nazi party. Cantor's arguments,[example needed] however, were later regarded as a twisting of facts and a "massive libel."[19]

Lineage in Kantorowicz's work[edit]

Scholars in recent years have traced the origins of the King's Two Bodies to Kantorowicz's specific time and place in 1920s and 1930s Germany, and driven in part by his wish to respond to contemporaneous theories about the theological origins of modern sovereignty.

Likely due to the polarizing reception of Kantorowicz's first book about the life of Frederick II[20] (Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite) due to its lack of footnotes, Kantorowicz did rigorous research for The King's Two Bodies and cites heavily throughout the book.[21] In Frederick II, the ruler was shown to be the founder of the secular state, at that point a new type of political entity that expressed the wishes of a lay culture that had been spreading for a century in Europe.[6] Scholars draw a direct lineage of intellectual ambitions from the early to late Kantorowicz.

In Frederick II ideas about the relation between the monarch and the state are proposed but only fulfilled in the Tudor legal doctrine Kantorowicz elaborates and interprets in The King's Two Bodies: that "a successful secular state" finds its basis in "an all-encompassing body politic housed in the monarch’s body." Kantorowicz also believed that the doctrines advocated by these jurists-cum-theologians were ultimately fictitious yet emotionally satisfying. He believed that any political theory is based not on truth but non-rational psychological power.

William Shakespeare's play Richard II includes many themes relevant to the book including conceptions of the body politic.

Kantorowicz was concerned with the problem of ideas from the theological or religious world being transferred to the secular, a process that he believed characterized modernity. Thus, theological ideas are made juridical; liturgical political; and the notion of Christendom becomes a "humanistic community of mankind."


  1. ^ Lewis, Ewart (September 1958). "Reviewed Work: The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology. by Ernst H. Kantorowicz". Political Science Quarterly. 73 (3): 453–455. doi:10.2307/2145850. JSTOR 2145850.
  2. ^ a b c Greenblatt, Stephen (May 2009). "Introduction: Fifty Years of The King's Two Bodies". Representations. 106 (1): 63–66. doi:10.1525/rep.2009.106.1.63. ISSN 0734-6018.
  3. ^ a b Watanabe, Morimichi (June 1983). "The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology. By Ernst H. Kantorowicz. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981 xvi + 568 pp. $9.95". Church History. 52 (2): 258–259. doi:10.2307/3167020. ISSN 0009-6407. JSTOR 3167020. S2CID 161370549.
  4. ^ a b c Jussen, Bernhard (Spring 2009). "The King's Two Bodies Today". Representations. 106 (1): 102–117. doi:10.1525/rep.2009.106.1.102. JSTOR 10.1525/rep.2009.106.1.102.
  5. ^ Lerner, Robert E. (2018-09-11), "The King's Two Bodies", Ernst Kantorowicz, Princeton University Press, pp. 344–358, doi:10.23943/princeton/9780691183022.003.0025, ISBN 978-0-691-18302-2, S2CID 187979775, retrieved 2020-06-25
  6. ^ a b Monod, Paul (2005-08-01). "Reading the Two Bodies of Ernst Kantorowicz". Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook. 50 (1): 105–123. doi:10.3167/007587405781998534. ISSN 0075-8744.
  7. ^ Powicke, F.W. (1959). "Reviewed Work: The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaval Political Theology by Ernst H. Kantorowicz". Medium Ævum. 28 (1): 50. doi:10.2307/43626773. ISSN 0025-8385. JSTOR 43626773.
  8. ^ Kantorowicz, Ernst H. (Ernst Hartwig). The king's two bodies : a study in mediaeval political theology. Princeton. ISBN 978-1-4008-8078-2. OCLC 946038875.
  9. ^ Plowden (1816). Commentaries, or Reports of Edmund Plowden. London: Printed for S. Brooke. OCLC 1048184263.
  10. ^ a b Edward Whalen, Brett (2020-02-01). "Political Theology and the Metamorphoses of The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology, by Ernst H. Kantorowicz". The American Historical Review. 125 (1): 132–145. doi:10.1093/ahr/rhz1225. ISSN 0002-8762.
  11. ^ Kantorowicz, Ernst H. (January 1955). "Mysteries of State: An Absolutist Concept and Its Late Mediaeval Origins". Harvard Theological Review. 48 (1): 65–91. doi:10.1017/s0017816000025050. ISSN 0017-8160. S2CID 161205851.
  12. ^ Maitland, F. W. (2003), Runciman, David; Ryan, Magnus (eds.), "The Crown as Corporation", F. W. Maitland: State, Trust and Corporation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 32–51, doi:10.1017/cbo9780511810435.007, ISBN 978-0-511-81043-5, retrieved 2020-06-28
  13. ^ FOUCAULT, MICHEL (2007-12-06), "Discipline and Punish", On Violence, Duke University Press, pp. 28–29, doi:10.2307/j.ctv120qr2d.34, ISBN 978-0-8223-9016-9, retrieved 2020-06-28
  14. ^ Lury, Karen (2016-02-28), "The Queen has two bodies", The British monarchy on screen, Manchester University Press, doi:10.7765/9781526113047.00020, ISBN 978-1-5261-1304-7, retrieved 2020-06-28
  15. ^ Paravicini Bagliani, Agostino (July 2000). The Pope's body. Peterson, David Spencer, 1951-, Translation of (work): Paravicini Bagliani, Agostino. Chicago. ISBN 978-0-226-03437-9. OCLC 41592982.
  16. ^ Birkholz, Daniel (2004). The king's two maps : cartography and culture in thirteenth-century England. Routledge. ISBN 0-203-50542-5. OCLC 252723619.
  17. ^ Fumurescu, Alin (2018-04-21). "The People's Two Bodies: An Alternative Perspective on Populism and Elitism". Political Research Quarterly. 71 (4): 842–853. doi:10.1177/1065912918768891. ISSN 1065-9129. S2CID 150153745.
  18. ^ Earenfight, Theresa Verfasser (24 February 2012). The King's Other Body Maria of Castile and the Crown of Aragon. ISBN 978-0-8122-0183-3. OCLC 956785648. {{cite book}}: |first= has generic name (help)
  19. ^ Benson, Robert L. (2014). Law, rulership, and rhetoric : selected essays of Robert L. Benson. pp. 317–337. ISBN 978-0-268-02234-1. OCLC 842209329.
  20. ^ Translated to English as Frederick the Second: 1194 - 1250.
  21. ^ Kahn, Victoria (Spring 2009). "Political Theology and Fiction in The King's Two Bodies". Representations. 106 (1): 77–101. doi:10.1525/rep.2009.106.1.77. JSTOR 10.1525/rep.2009.106.1.77.