Ernst Kantorowicz’s ‘The King’s Two Bodies’

Cri423Robert E. Norton at the Times Literary Supplement:

Kantorowicz’s first book on the Staufer Emperor alone may have sufficed to secure his place in the scholarly pantheon. But he managed to outdo himself with the even more influential The King’s Two Bodies, which appeared in 1957, shortly before he died in 1963, and has never been out of print. Yet most striking is that these two monumental books exist at opposite ends of the ideological and historiographic spectrums: the first, written in the overwrought, mystagogic style cultivated within the “circle” around the poet Stefan George, celebrates an almighty, autocratic ruler who held sway over a vast realm. Kantorowicz deliberately – and compellingly – cast his book as a political allegory meant to inspire his fellow Germans to seek and submit to such a leader should he appear. The latter book, written in English in American exile in Berkeley and Princeton, is a sober, meticulous, but no less scintillating study of an esoteric historical problem in what Kantorowicz called “political theology”. It is an immensely learned work bolstered by thousands of footnotes (the first book had none) and spiked with rebarbative terms only a pedant could embrace: “catoptromancy”, “geminate”, “caducity” and “equiparation”. When it was published, one reviewer hailed it as “a great book, perhaps the most important work in the history of medieval political thought, surely the most spectacular, of the past several generations”. Its appeal for subsequent readers was enhanced when Michel Foucault approvingly cited The King’s Two Bodies inDiscipline and Punish, while Giorgio Agamben called it “one of the great texts of our age on the techniques of power”.

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