On the King’s two bodies and modern myth making

There is a historical conception pioneered by Ernst Kantorowitz outlined in his book The King’s Two Bodies, which argued that medieval kings had – wait for it – two bodies. Historians refer to these as “the body natural” and “the body politic”.[1] The body natural is the king’s actual physical body. It is born, grows, has sex, gets ill, an dies. You know, like bodies do. The body politic on the other hand is a symbol of the office of the king. It transcends the king himself and instead is a symbol of his divine right to rule. It is bigger than any one actual king and is bestowed onto whoever becomes the next king when a king’s body natural dies. This is where you get the phrase, “The king is dead, long live the king.” The conception of the king is larger than any one actual person and it is a stand in for the conception of a kingship within that kingdom itself.

Central to this is the idea that the reason kings are kings is that God willed them to be such. This is what we call the “divine right to rule”.[2] Kings are preordained by the Lord to wield earthly power in his stead. Obviously, God can’t be down here running the show 24/7, so, in theory he makes sure that the best possible representatives on earth rule for him. This is a nice little conceit for kings themselves because they don’t have to reflect on their massive power and lavish lifestyles in comparison to the other ninety-seven percent of the population. They rule because they are supposed to. The proof is the fact that they are ruling, right now. Witness them.

Sometimes this divine right ends up being mediated. In the case of the Holy Roman Empire, for example, (and as I have explained before) divine right is bestowed on the elected King of the Romans. There is a lot of back and forth fighting between Emperors and Popes about that this means. Emperors argue that being elected King of the Romans means that God wanted them to be emperor and that is the divine right proof. Popes say no way – when the King of the Romans is elected that is just a worldly election. The divine right comes in when the Pope crowns him and he becomes Holy Roman Emperor. The divine thing more or less flows through the Pope and is bestowed on the Emperor.

The whole king’s body/divine right thing isn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion though – even if we are not talking election and popes. Thing about divine right is it is supposed to show up in the way that people rule. The ruled start asking questions when their king is not ruling well.

A monk from Swineshead Abbey in Lincolnshire, offers King John a poisoned chalice, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XIII, f. 5v. King John was such a terrible ruler that the chronicler Matthew Paris wrote of his death, ‘Foul as it is, Hell itself is made fouler by the presence of John’. So much for divine right.

For example, when the Carolingian Empire was being attacked by Vikings repeatedly, it eroded faith in the dynasty.[3] How was it possible that God was divinely favouring a dynasty that couldn’t win a fight against a bunch of pagans? Surely, the fact that the Vikings were winning so handily was a sign that God was displeased with the Carolingians and wanted to see greater power with the local nobility that were responding to attacks.

We also see this play out as a part of the Iconoclasm controversy in the Eastern Roman (AKA Byzantine Empire). When the Empire’s army begins losing territory during the Islamic conquests people began to ask questions.[4] Maybe this was a sign that God actually did impart some divine rules to the Muslims that Christians were ignoring. Specifically, God doesn’t like your icons so you are losing territory to the Muslims. I guess you best take them all down. Yeah. That’ll solve it.

Similar criticisms could be levelled during war time between Christian kingdoms. Say two kings are fighting and one comes out on top. This can be interpreted as a sign of God’s favour. He would not allow an unworthy king to topple a worthy one, after all.

Anyway, this has all been on my mind as I sit in England during a pandemic. The UK, and England more specifically has been suffering one of the highest death rates in Europe, largely as a result of the fact that we tried doing nothing and are all out of ideas. Then Boris Johnson, the Etonian mop that we elected PM so that rich people wouldn’t have to pay very slightly more in taxes, got the rona because – I am serious – he was insisting on shaking hands with people who had come down with it.

Anyway TL/DR the media lied a bunch about him being fine actually, he went to the ICU, and he is out now. During all of this certain media hacks have explicitly stated that we should all be Very Upset because Johnson’s body is the body politic. (No, I will not link you to the Tory rags that print this drivel. You are gonna have to google that one yourself.) First, we were explicitly told – in one rag’s headline – that we were meant to “Pray for Boris”. In the midst of this all we were told we were all having grave fears for our fearless leader, you know, the one who in February stated that we would do absolutely nothing in the face of an uncoming pandemic because “a desire for market segregation” would go beyond “what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage” and “at that moment humanity needs some Government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange”. In order to do that we were just gonna go with a “herd immunity” strategy, let everyone get the virus and, well, I guess if your nana has to die for a free market to flourish that is just that way it is. Anyway, when he got out of the hospital we were then told that we are all just tearing up with joy to hear this dude was back at work. Where would we be without him?

So obviously it is extremely disturbing to be told that Boris Johnson’s body is the body politic because it implies that he is the Prime Minister not because he won an election with the help of a tame lapdog media, but because he has a divine right to rule us like the plebs we are. This sort of flies in the face of the fact that we are pretending to have fair elections over here or whatever. We are not meant to be ruled by our Prime Minister, we are meant to be governed. But mask off, I guess.

Beyond the terrifying idea that Boris Johnson is favoured by God and not capitalism, there is also the fact that you can’t interpret his body as the body politic because, and I don’t know if you are aware of this, the United Kingdom already has a queen. If you are gonna have one then I am afraid that you have to get comfortable with the fact that she is the one that rules by divine right? Her literal coat of arms says “Dieu et mon droit”, or “God and my right” in answer before you even get to ask why she is the monarch. She has the body politic, by definition. To quote Janelle Monáe “we don’t need another ruler”, she is already ruling us. (The Queen, that is, not Janelle, unfortunately.)

Secondly, even if we ignore the Queen (which I have been trying to do, amiright?) the idea that Boris is the body politic and ruling by divine right doesn’t actually lead you to think that he is doing a good job here. If his body gets the disease that he thinks is no big deal and he almost dies then it is indicative of the fact that he is really terrible at this job and we are all dying. If he is the body politic then clearly God hates his ass and wants him to suffer along with all us poors who he sees as expendable to appease venture capital.

This is the trouble with the two bodies analogy. It requires people who are actually capable to be in charge. The minute that you start to fail it becomes clear that you are ruling because you were born rich, not because you are uniquely favoured, intelligent, or talented. More to the point, if your rule isn’t going well you are meant to be overthrown because it is clear that God hates your ass. If you are one of the Tory cheerleaders that passes for an independent press in this country, you might want to take that into consideration before you actively attempt to apply a term that you clearly read on Wikipedia and then thought no more about.

Lastly, the one way in which Boris Johnson as the body politic actually tracks with the medieval version tells us exactly why we should be ignoring it. The conception of the body politic isn’t something that actually meant anything to the life of the average medieval person, who was, you know, a peasant. It is a story that rich people told to other rich people and it didn’t involve them. The concept that there was a king somewhere certainly existed, but it was unlikely to influence their lives one way or another. They were busy doing all the actual useful work that kept society going rather than wanking on about the meaning of whoever the fuck was ruling them. This is a concept by the ruling class, for the ruling class, kept alive then as now by a sycophantic group of client writers. Anyone who is attempting to lionise Johnson in these circumstances is engaging in chronicling, not journalism.  

Given the inherent stupidity of attempting to foist this concept on the fine people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, one might question why I even both pointing out how wrong-headed it is. None of these “journalists” have ever faced a consequence as a result of their stifling credulity and self-interest. Why start worrying about something like intellectual integrity now?

The answer is that you and I have to use our words correctly. We have to apply our historical terms precisely, and actually be good at making argumentative cases if we want to be allowed to participate in public debate. It is in that spirit that I offer this post to you. Concepts mean something, even if your life doesn’t to the ruling class. Don’t let them twist those in service against your interests.


[1] Ernst Kantorowitz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).
[2] For more on the divine right of kings, try John Neville Figgis, The Divine Right of Kings, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914).
[3] If you are interested in the Carolingian/Viking contests, try Simon Coupland, “The Carolingian Army and the Struggle Against the Vikings”, Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2004, 35, 49-70.
[4] For more on this, try G. E. von Grunebaum “Byzantine Iconoclasm and the Influence of the Islamic Environment, History of Religions 1962 2:1, 1-10.


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For more on politics and the medieval period see:
On martyrdom and nationalism
On a world without police
Religious iconography has always been a prop
Medieval policing and race reading lists
On Odious Debt
Emergency Post: That is not what the “good” in Good Friday means
On defeats, small people, and the UK election
On colonialism, imperialism, and ignoring medieval history
On Q Anon and systems of knowledge
On Jerusalem and the Apocalypse, or why you should be deeply unsettled right now
On Mike Pence, Holocaust Memorial Day, and Christian interpretations of Jewish utility
On the medieval separation of Church and state, or, putting the ‘holy’ in Holy Roman Empire
History is a discipline, not a virtue
On medieval healthcare and American barbarism
Keep the word ‘Judeo’ out of your racist mouth Nigel Farage
On chronicles versus journalism and ruling versus governing
On the American election, teaching history, and why it matters
Such a nasty woman – on Eleanor of Aquitaine, femininity, reputation, and power
On power and entitlement to the bodies of lower-status women
Islam was the party religion, or, why it is lazy and essentialist to say that Islam oppresses women
The medieval case for remain, or, fuck Brexit

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

2 thoughts on “On the King’s two bodies and modern myth making”

  1. The one bright moment was Boris thanking the two foreign NHS workers for keeping him alive. And now for safely delivering his … ahem…fiancee of a child. Looking forward to your next post.

    Like

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