King’s two bodies (MIDDLE AGES)

Medieval theory of divine authority of kings.

The king had two ‘bodies’, one of which was the ordinary mortal one, the other infused with the divine right to govern which marked off the monarch from other men.

E H Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies (Princeton, 1957)


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 Edward 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’s 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

A primary reason 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] Reworking’s 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 controversies involving Kantorowicz’s legacy was the claim by Norman Cantor that he was one of two “Nazi twins” (the other being Percy Ernst Schramm, an actual member of the Nazi party) due to the popular reception of his book on Frederick the Second among Nazis. Cantor’s arguments however were later regarded as a twisting of facts and a “massive libel.”[19]

Lineage in Kantorowicz’s work

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.

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