There are some books which become so influential that there is just no getting around them. For researchers of royal studies and premodern political thought Ernst H. Kantorowicz’s book The King’s Two Bodies is one of them.
Even if you’ve never read it, you certainly have heard about it, and maybe also used the main argument in your own work!
What is the main argument of this book? Kantorowicz starts with a legal discussion under Elizabeth I’s rule about the lease of some lands under Edward VI who was still a child at the time in question. Kantorowicz uses Edmund Plowden’s Commentaries in which it is argued that a king has two bodies: a natural one (body natural) which still might be a minor, but also as king a political body (body politic) which is freed from all mortal and natural defects. Whenever the king acts with his body politic, no restrictions of his body natural are in force.
From this starting point, Kantorowics looks further back in time and traces the idea of a monarch having two bodies, and how this influenced political theory and thought. His work was so influential that not only is it still used today, but a range of researchers used this concept and expanded it. Martin Wrede discovered a third body of the king – the memoria – in his article on Königsmord, Tyrannentod. Wie man sich der drei Körper des Königs entledigt – oder es zumindest versucht (16.-18. Jahrhundert) (2013). Regina Schulte explored in an edited volume the two (or more) bodies of the queen in Der Körper der Königin. Geschlecht und Herrschaft in der höfischen Welt (2002). Quentin Skinner explored this topic in his Kantorowicz Lecture in Frankfurt/Main in May 2011 which can be read in the (only) German book Die drei Körper des Staates (2012). David A. Warner in his article on Rituals, Kingship and Rebellion in Medieval Germany (2010) again draws from this basic argument (thanks to Penny Nash (Sydney) for adding this!)
Royal Studies scholars also use this book still today – I usually use a German copy provided by my library from 1990 (and just as a sidenote – it is remarkable that an English book from 1957 by a German emigrant – Kantorowicz taught in Heidelberg and Frankfurt before going into exile in 1939 – was only translated into German in 1990)
Ernst H. Kantorowicz:
Die zwei Körper des Königs.
Eine Studie zur politischen Theologie des Mittelalters
Michael Evans (Delta College / Central Michigan University) uses it in his courses: “I set my students Kantorowicz’s classic The Kings Two Bodies as part of a graduate class on the historiography of the western Middle Ages. I required some very intensive reading from them; usually a book a week, plus one or two articles. Given its length, we devoted two weeks to The King’s Two Bodies. (Thinking this was generous timeline, I told a colleague who responded ‘you made them read that tome in only two weeks?!’). My students were a little intimidated by the length of the book and the density of some of the prose (we held a ‘find the most verbose paragraph’ competition to keep up morale), but were intrigued both by Kantorowicz’s life story and by his ideas. We used Kantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages as an accompanying text, and challenging Cantor’s myth of the ‘Nazi’ Kantorowicz was interesting, helped by Conrad Leyser’s introduction and William Chester Jordan’s preface to the Princeton edition, and by Robert Lerner’s recent biography of EK. Students were intrigued by the core idea of the ‘two bodies’, leading to some intriguing questions: ‘what about the queen’s body?’; ‘What about a regnant queen? Does she occupy the king’s body?’; ‘What if a regnant queen is pregnant with a future king? How many king’s bodies are present?’ and so on. A focus on ‘body history’ was also valuable when we later discussed Caroline Walker’s Bynum’s Holy Feat, Holy Fast, with its focus on women’s body, and bodies in a very different context. Sixty years after its publication, the ideas in The King’s Two Bodies still resonate with today’s students.”
Michael uses this copy, a Princeton Classic Edition from 2016:
Andy C. McMillin (Winchester) read this copy for her undergrad degree at UC Davis, the edition from Princeton University Press, in the 1981 version.
Milinda Banerjee (Kolkata, Munich) was deeply inspired by this work for his own work on Colonial India: “I used Kantorowicz to think about similar ideas about body politic, linking kingship and nationhood (national community imagined as the body of a sacred king; but also more subaltern/peasant imaginaries of body politic), in late 19th/20th c. Indian political thought. Also used him to understand Indian ultra-left Naxalite/’Maoist’ discourses in the 1960s-70s about a Communist sovereign (Alexei Yurchak’s Kantorowicz-inspired work on Lenin was very inspiring here). I also loved Kantorowciz’s Laudes Regiae; In The Mortal God, I discuss the Indian national anthem as an acclamation to a sacred God-King (written by Rabindranath Tagore as an anticolonial response to George V’s visit to India).”
Did the King’s Two Bodies influence your work? Share with us your experiences, stories, and show us your copy of the book! You’ll find us on Facebook in the Royal Studies Group or email us under email@example.com.