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The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology

Excerpts from: Kantorowicz, E., The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Ernst Kantorowicz

Ernst Kantorowicz was a historian of medieval political and intellectual history. He taught at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he published his masterpiece, The King’s Two Bodies, which explored medieval political theology and how theologians, historians and canonists in the Middle Ages understood the office and person of the king, as well as the idea of the kingdom, in corporeal and organological terms. This classic described the figure of the European monarch as a unique product of religious and legal traditions that eventually produced the notion of a “king” as simultaneously a person and an embodiment of the community of the realm.

7—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.

9—Although (the king) has, or takes, the land in his natural Body, yet to this natural Body is conjoined his Body politic; ...and the Body politic includes the Body natural, but the Body natural is the lesser, and with this the Body politic is consolidated...And he has not a Body natural distinct and divided by itself from the Office and Dignity Royal, but a Body natural and a Body politic together indivisible; and these two Bodies are incorporated in one Person, and make one Body and not divers, that is the Body corporate in the Body natural, et e contra the Body natural in the Body corporate. So that the Body natural, by this conjunction of the Body politic to it (which the Body politic contains the Office, Government, and Majesty royal), is magnified, and by the said Consolidation hath in it the Body politic.

9—The King’s Two Bodies thus form one unit indivisible, each being fully contained in the other. However, doubt cannot arise concerning the superiority of the body politic over the body natural. His Body politic is more ample and large than the Body natural.
Not only is the body politic “more ample and large” than the body natural, but there dwell in the former certain truly mysterious forces which reduce, or even remove, the imperfections of the fragile human nature.

Plowden, cont.:

9—His Body politic, which is annexed to his Body natural, takes away the Imbecility of his Body natural, and draws the Body natural, which is the lesser, and all the Effects thereof to itself, which is the greater.

11—When the Body politic of the 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 natural and the Body politic are consolidated into one, and 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 done if it were alone by itself. 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.

13—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. 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 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, but 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 to another Body natural.

13—This migration of the “Soul,” that is, of the immortal part of kingship from one incarnation to another as expressed by the concept of the king’s demise is certainly one of the essentials of the whole theory of the King’s Two Bodies. This “incarnation” of the body politic in a king of flesh not only does away with the imperfections of the body natural, but conveys “immortality” to the individual king as King, that is, with regard to his superbody.

14—Whereas the manhood of the individual incarnation appeared as negligible and as of indifferent importance, the eternal essence or “godhead” of the monarch was all that contacted.

196—For many centuries, the official meaning of the “mystical body” was the consecrated host. The Church was compelled to stress most emphatically, not a spiritual or mystical, but the real presence of both the human and the divine Christ in the Eucharist. The notion corpus mysticum, hitherto used to describe the host, was gradually transferred—after 1150—to the Church as the organized body of Christian society united in the Sacrament of the Alter. In short, the expression “mystical body,” which originally had a liturgical or sacramental meaning, took on a connotation of sociological content. It was finally in that relatively new sociological sense that Boniface VIII defined the Church as “one mystical body the head of which is Christ.”

197—The new term corpus mysticum placed the Church as a body politic, or as a political and legal organism, on a level with the secular bodies politic which were then beginning to assert themselves as self-sufficient entities. In that respect the new ecclesiological designation of corpus mysticum fell in with the more general aspirations of that age: to hallow the secular politics as well as their administrative institutions. When in the twelfth century the Church, including the clerical bureaucracy, established itself as the “mystical body of Christ,” the secular world sector proclaimed itself the “holy Empire.”

198—Around the middle of the twelfth century both theologians and canonists began to distinguish between the “lord’s two Bodies”—one, the individual corpus verum on the altar, the host; and the other, the collective corpus mysticum, the Church.

199—Scholars around 1200 in their discussions of the Sacrament of the Altar almost customarily distinguished between the individual body (corpus personale) and the collective body (corpus mysticum) of Christ. And in the first quarter or the thirteen century, William of Auxerre contrasted the body natural (corpus naturale) with the corpus mysticum (of Christ). Here, at last, in that new assertion of the “lord’s Two Bodies”—in the bodies natural and mystic, personal and corporate, individual and collective of Christ—we seem to have found the precise precedent of the “king’s two Bodies.”

The terminological change by which the consecrated host became the corpus naturale and the social body of the Church became the corpus mysticum, coincided with that moment in the history of Western thought when the doctrines of corporational and organic structure of society began to pervade anew the political theories of the West. It was in that period—to mention only the classical example—that John of Salisbury compared the commonweal with the organism of the human body. Similar comparisons of the Church with a human body, stimulated by St. Paul, are found sporadically throughout the middle ages.

200—Isaac of Stella, a contemporary of John of Salisbury, applied the metaphor of the human body with great precision to the corpus mysticum the head of which was Christ and whose limbs were the archbishops, bishops, etc. The anthropomorphic imagery was transferred to both the Church as the “Mystical body of Christ” in a spiritual sense and the church as an administrative organism styled likewise corpus mysticum.


The whole Church is styled one mystical body for its similarity to man’s natural body.

200-1—In Aquinas’ teaching the “true body” (corpus verum) signified Christ as an individual being, physical and in the flesh, whose individual “body natural” became sociologically the model of the supraindividual and collective mystical body of the Church.

201—The Church as a corpus mysticum compared with the individual body of Christ, his corpus verum or naturale. The individual body natural of Christ was understood as an organism acquiring social and corporational functions: it served with head and limbs as the prototype and individuation of a super-individual collective, the Church as corpus mysticum.

201—It had been the custom to talk about the Church as the “mystical body of Christ” (corpus Christi mysticum). Now, however, the Church, which had been the mystical body of Christ, became a mystical body in its own right. The church organism became a “mystical body” in an almost juristic sense: a mystical corporation. The change in terminology signified just another step to “secularize” the notion of “mystical body.”
The term corpus mysticum, despite all the sociological and organological connotations it had acquired, nevertheless preserved its definitely sacramental ring simply because the word “body” still recalled the consecrated sacrifice.

206—To summarize, the notion of corpus mysticum, designating originally the Sacrament of the Altar, served after the twelfth century to describe the body politic, or corpus juridicum, of the Church...the concept of the Two Bodies of Christ: one a body natural, individual, and personal; the other a super-individual body politic and collective, the corpus mysticum. the corpus mysticum proper came to be less and less mystical as time passed on, and came to mean simply the Church as a body politic or, by transference, any body politic of the secular world.

210—The notion of corpus mysticum was easily transferred to other secular units as well. Baldus, for example, defined populus, the people, as a mystical body. He held that a populace was not simply the sum of individuals of a community, but them assembled into one mystical body. The designation corpus mysticum brought to the secular polity, as it were, a whiff of incense from another world.

There was yet another notion which became popular during the thirteenth century, the notion of “body politic,“ which is inseparable from both the age of early corporational doctrines and of the revival of Aristotle. Before long, the term “mystical body” became applicable to any corpus morale et politcum in the Aristotelian sense.

211—Gogrey of Fontains, a Belgian philosopher of the late 13th century...His major premise was that

Everyone is (by nature) part of a social community, and thereby also a member of some mystical body.

216—Lucas de Penna:

The Prince is the head of the realm, and the realm the body of the Prince. Just as men are joined together spiritually in the spiritual body, the head of which is Christ, so are men joined together morally and politically in the respublica, which is a body the head of which is the Prince.

The Prince, who is the head of the mystical body of the state was compared with Christ, the head of the mystical body of the Church.

218—The Church as the supra-individual collective body of Christ, of which he was both the head and the husband, found its exact parallel in the state as the supra-individual collective body of the Prince, of which he was both the head and the husband. “The Prince is the head of the realm, and the realm the body of the Prince.” In other words, the jurist transferred to the Prince and the state the most important social, organic, and corporational elements normally serving to explain the relations between Christ and the Church—that is, Christ as the groom of the Church, as the head of the mystical body, and as the mystical body itself.

240—Saint Dubrick of Caerleon (12th century):

Fight for your patria and suffer even death for her if such should overwhelm you. Death itself is Victory and is means of saving the soul. For whoever suffers death for his brothers, offers himself a living host to God, and unambiguously he follows Christ. If, therefore, one of you be overcome by death in this war, let that death be atonement for, and absolution of, all his sins.

244—Henry of Ghent gave the final blessing to pro patria mori by comparing the sacrifice of a citizen for his brothers and his community to the supreme sacrifice which Christ made for the salvation of man, and of mankind. Thus it happened that in the thirteenth century the crown of martyrdom began to descend on the war victims of the secular state.

249—The original quasi-religious aspect of death pro patria as “martyrdom” clearly derived from the teaching of the church, from the adaptation of ecclesiastical forms to the secular bodies politic. This source was tapped persistently, especially in France where the leading politicians began to deploy the forces of religious sentiment systematically and make them subservient to the undisguised political goals of the new corpus mysticum, the national territorial monarch.

256—Death on the battlefield for the political corpus mysticum headed by a king who was a saint and therefore a champion of Justice, became officially “martyrdom.” It equaled the self-sacrifice of the canonized martyrs for the corpus mysticum of the Church the head of which was Christ. (This occurred around 1300.)

258—The organic-corporational concept, looming in back of King Philip’s decree, was actually asserted with greatest precision in a pamphlet of 1296, composed by one of the royal legists, probably Peter Flotte:

Depraved is the part that does not conform with its whole, and useless and quasi paralytic a limb that refuses to support its own body; laymen or cleric, nobleman or man of low birth, whoever refuses to come to the support of his head and his body, that is, the lord king and the kingdom (of France), and lastly of himself, provides to be a non-conforming part and a useless and quasi paralytic limb.

259—William of Nogaret:

By his oath of fealty he was astricted to defend his lord the King as well as his patria, the kingdom of France.

As a member of the body politic of France he, like every other Frenchman, was obliged to defend this very body, the patria. The formula pro rege et patria, “for king and fatherland,” survived until modern times; normally it would not have been felt—in the 20th century as little as in the 13th—that in fact two different strata overlapped and two different obligations coincided. After all, the feudal lord was, at the same time, the head of the body politic, and what difference did it make whether a man offered his life to the “head” or to the “limbs” or to the “head and limbs” together.

261—Pamphlet from the pen of Enea Silvio Pocolomini, later Pope Pius II, tract dedicated to the Habsburg emperor Frederick III. The Prince, said he, may demand ad usum publicum even the life of a citizen, “since we are not born for ourselves alone.” He reminded the emperor of illustrious men and women who for the sake of a community, a people, had been sacrificed:

It is proper that one man should die for the people...It should not appear too hard if we say that for the benefit of the whole body a foot or hand, which in the commonweal are the citizens, must be amputated, since the prince himself, the head of the mystical body of the republica, is held to sacrifice his life whenever the commonweal demands it.

We notice that the “mystical body of the Church the head of which is Christ,” has been replaced by the “mystical body of the respublica the head of which is the Prince.“ The ordinary citizen offering himself up for the commonweal became, no doubt, a martyr whose caritas imitated that of Christ. But the sacrifice of the Prince for his corpus mysticum—the secular state—compared with the sacrifice of Christ more directly on a different level: both offered their lives not only as members but also as the head of their mystical bodies.

268—At a certain moment in history the state appeared as a corpus mysticum comparable to the Church. Hence, pro patria mori, death for the sake of that mystico-political body made sense; it became meaningful, as it was considered equal in value and consequence to the death for the Christian faith, for the Church, or for the Holy Land. If indeed every Christian “who lives in the body of the Church is held to rise in defense of that body,“ it was a straight and simple conclusion to maintain that every Frenchman who lived in the body of France was held to rise in defense of that national body. By analogy, therefore, death for the body political or the patria was viewed in a truly religious perspective and was understood religiously. It was a sacrifice all the more worthy to offer because it was made for the sake of a body moral and politic which cherished its own eternal values and had achieved its moral and ethical autonomy alongside of the corpus mysticum of the Church.

268—Did the idea of doubleness—“One body of Christ which is he himself, and another body of which he is the head”—find its equivalent in the secular sphere when the corpus republicae mysticum came into being?

The Prince, being the head of the mystical body of the state and sometimes even that body itself, paralleled Christ who was both the head of the mystical body of the Church and that body itself; also, just as Christ laid down his life for this corporate body, so was the Prince supposed to sacrifice his life for the commonwealth.

270-1—The state, around 1300, was not a “fictitious person” but an organic or organological whole. It did not exist apart from its members. The regnum or patria was not “personified”—it was “bodified.” Mainly because the state could be conceived of as a “body,” could there be constructed the analogy with the mystical body of the Church. The terminology should prevent us from lightheartedly discarding the old organic oneness of head and limbs in the body politic and rashly replacing it by the abstraction of a personified state. The head of the mystical body of the church was eternal, since Christ was both God and man. his own eternity, therefore, bestowed upon his mystical body likewise the value of eternity or rather timelessness.