Beyond the King’s Two Bodies


Photograph of Lewis Chessmen by Andrew Dunn

by Stuart Elden

Ernst Kantorowicz: A Life,
by Robert E. Lerner,
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017, xv + 400 pp. 

Beyond the ranks of medievalists, Ernst Kantorowicz (1895-1963) is largely known for his magisterial 1957 book The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology. Praised by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish, and a reference point for Giorgio Agamben, The King’s Two Bodies is almost certainly a book now more cited than read. Yet Kantorowicz was the author of other important books, as well as several articles and chapters, some of which were collected in the posthumous Selected Studies in 1965. In 1927, he had published a major German-language biography of the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II, an immense though very readable study which was roundly criticised by more traditional historians. Not to be put off, Kantorowicz followed it with a second volume in 1931 proving sources and further readings, as impressive in its ostentatious erudition as the first volume had been in its accessibility. In 1946, after delays in press due in part to the war, he published a study in English entitled Laudes Regiae: A Study of Liturgical Acclamations and Medieval Ruler Worship. In October 1950, for reasons to be discussed, he self-funded the publication of a pamphlet The Fundamental Issue: Documents and Marginal Notes on the University of California Loyalty Oath. The King’s Two Bodies was a late work, much delayed, which appeared only a few years before his death. He never wrote, nor even began, another book. Of these works, only The King’s Two Bodies remains in print in English, despite the 1931 translation of Fredrick the Second and the other books being written in that language.

Kantorowicz led a remarkable life, and it seems only right to wonder what else he might have achieved as a scholar had he not encountered so many challenges to his academic career. A Prussian-born Jew, he had seen military service in the First World War, notably at Verdun where he received the Iron Cross. After the war, he fought against the Poles in his native Posen, Spartacists in Berlin and communists in Munich. Awarded his doctorate in 1921, he became a full professor in 1932. His biography of Friedrich is strongly nationalistic, and his politics were clearly of the conservative right. Yet as German nationalism mutated into National Socialism, his race created an impassable divide. While initially exempt from some of the Jewish directives because of his military service, he spoke out against the Nazis, and had to be sheltered in the roundup of Jews after Kristallnacht. The situation in Germany became one he needed to escape. First this was to England, with a brief stay in Oxford, and then to the United States. A succession of temporary posts at the University of California, Berkeley followed, often only renewed at the last moment, before he finally achieved a permanent position as Professor. Yet in the post-war McCarthyite period, California enforced a loyalty oath for its professors, explicitly stating their distance from Communism. While he stressed his conservatism, Kantorowicz refused to sign this oath, and was one of the main instigators of the campaign against it. He was fired by the University in 1950 and ended up at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. While in time he won a legal case against Berkeley, and received back pay, he would work in Princeton for the rest of his life.

Robert E Lerner’s biography provides an enormous amount of detail to flesh out the bones of this story. He has delved deep into archives in Germany, England, Switzerland and across the United States. Some of these are publicly available, though seemingly little used, resources. He interviewed many people who knew Kantorowicz, and some a generation or more removed, and persuaded them to share stories passed on or correspondence privately held. A medieval historian by trade, Lerner is clearly at ease with the content of Kantorowicz’s work and that of his contemporaries. But he is also convincing on the political context of Kantorowicz’s times, from interwar Germany to Cold War America. Despite the vast range of his research, he does not over-encumber the text, which is extremely readable and as fascinating as the life of the man it covers. There is a scattering of archive photographs which add colour to the narrative. We hear a great deal about Kantorowicz’s early academic career in Germany, and his membership of the Stefan George Circle. Lerner recounts in detail both the complicated passage to the West Coast, and the interminable politics of his temporary positions, including his clashes with UC’s president Robert Sproul. He examines the details of the California loyalty oath in some detail, though here, as elsewhere, indicates that much more could have been said. Above all, he has a keen ear for the intrigues of Kantorowicz’s personal life, his affairs with men and women, his friendships, animosities and grudges. A serious wine drinker, cook and gourmand, Kantorowicz was a great conversationalist and clearly engaging company. EKa – as we learn he liked to be called – had a life fully lived, personally and professionally.

The books and articles on which Kantorowicz’s reputation rests are integrated into this story. Lerner recognises that “hardly anyone reads KFII [Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite] today” (p. 112), and that Laudes Regiae “never became very well known” (p. 248). This perhaps explains why publishers have allowed these works to go out of print, though Laudes Regiae is available in other European languages, and in a digital age new editions would be straight-forward. We hear much intriguing detail about the circumstances of his books’ writing, publication and reception. Lerner is good on how themes in early work set the stage for later concerns – the focus on the acclamation “Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat” in the Friedrich biography becomes the focus for Laudes Regiae (pp. 111, 179); or how an abandoned project in the 1930s on the German interregnum generated an understanding of time which was used in The King’s Two Bodies (pp. 198, 217). The weaving together of the scholar and his life tracks how his travels allowed him to access libraries and archives across Europe, and later, the United States.

Kantorowicz’s voluminous correspondence provides many inflections and shades to the life of the mind, and its continually tangled relations with more prosaic concerns. While some was lost, or destroyed, it is astonishing how much actually survived the vicissitudes of exile and war. Many of Kantorowicz’s lecture courses are housed at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, which has his principal archive. Since he always read from scripts (pp. 153, 227), these are very extensive. The lectures can be quoted, but “are not to be published”. The few quotes Lerner provides indicate the care with which Kantorowicz prepared them, which makes their enforced archival state all the more regrettable. Their reach extended far beyond the remit of his published writings: “he taught a stretch from 300 to 1600, with outliers for the army courses into the twentieth century” (p. 273). Lerner says less about the content of the books themselves, and perhaps this is to be expected in a biography. But as a medieval historian himself it would have been of interest if Lerner had allowed himself to say just a bit more about the content of the works, their drafting and editing. Often, he defers to other authorities when judging the works; though the reader reports on The King’s Two Bodies are fascinating, such as their wish for him to leave out the chapters on Shakespeare and Dante (i.e. p. 352). He is also good on the different types of sources Kantorowicz used for his work – from formal written texts to liturgies, laws, coins, illuminations, other artworks and legends.

When I read in an interview with Lerner that he owned “the great man’s clothes brush”, and then saw a picture of this monogrammed object as a frontispiece to the work, I worried that this was the work of a fan, even a fanatic, rather than a sober academic life. Such fears were misplaced. While Lerner is certainly an enthusiast, and fascinated by small details, this is an impressive and scholarly study: it has more in common with Kantorowicz’s later work than his biography of Friedrich. The research was conducted over three decades, and while Lerner mentions a brief personal encounter, this work has its serious genesis much later. Kantorowicz’s life spans some of the most important events of the twentieth century, from the First World War to the Cuban missile crisis. Unusually, as Lerner notes, Kantorowicz moved from the right to the left politically, not just in his opposition to institutional anti-communism but on other matters too. Above all though, what comes through is Kantorowicz’s defence of academic and aesthetic freedom, regardless of the consequences for a narrower conception of liberty. Reading the life outlined here should be of appeal to people with an interest in the last century, and the relation of academic work to its multiple contexts, rather than only those with an interest in the medieval centuries of which Kantorowicz’s own work so persuasively spoke.


About the Author:

Stuart Elden is Professor of Political Theory and Geography at the University of Warwick, UK and Monash Warwick Professor in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University, Australia. He is the author of seven books, including The Birth of Territory (University of Chicago Press, 2013), Foucault’s Last Decade (Polity Press, 2016) and Foucault: The Birth of Power (Polity Press, 2017). He is currently writing a book entitled Shakespearean Territories, and beginning a project on Foucault work in the 1950s. He runs a blog at