On the Knees of the Body Politic
by Lorna Hutson
In this essay, Oxford’s Lorna Hutson analyzes the fullest theoretical elaboration of the doctrine of the King’s Two Bodies in the Elizabethan period, Edmund Plowden’s Treatise on the Succession (1567). It argues that Plowden here deploys the King’s Two Bodies not, as has been thought, as a legal proof against the foreign birth of Mary Queen of Scots, but as a way of embodying and sacralizing the disputed historical relations of England and Scotland. Plowden’s sacralizing metaphors of embodiment transform the highly contentious English claim of Scotland’s historic vassalage into the indisputable and timeless truth of political theology.
The essay begins:
Ten years ago, Representations ran a special forum on fifty years of The King’s Two Bodies, Ernst Kantorowicz’s vastly influential study of medieval political theology. The influence of Kantorowicz’s concept shows no signs of ebbing. It has become routine to cite titles that echo his—The Poem’s Two Bodies; The Law’s Two Bodies; The People’s Two Bodies—as well as to instance Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben as both influenced by and transformative of Kantorowicz’s conception. In this journal and in a subsequent book, Victoria Kahn has shown how Kantorowicz’s genealogy of sovereignty was identified by critics of liberal democracy as a key, if ambivalent, text of twentieth-century political theology, responding as it does both to Carl Schmitt’s theological modeling of the sovereign exception and to Ernst Cassirer’s critique of political myth. Readings of Kantorowicz have run the gamut of political-theological possibility among literary critics, political theorists, and constitutional historians. For some, the two-bodies theory proves an early modern belief in “rule by a sacral king,” while others look to the secular, constitutionalist way in which the doctrine renders the monarch “a creature of the law”; others still have shown how the regal corporation sole is just one among many incorporating forms, and may not even be the most important, if we look at the unparalleled political influence of corporations in modern Western capitalism.
In view of this conceptual range, it might seem reductive to propose that one of the doctrine’s fullest early modern articulations was aimed at Scotland. To propose, that is (as I wish to do) that it was designed to render Scotland’s territorial sovereignty unimaginable, by separating the “body natural” of Scotland’s ruling dynasty from its power to signify Scotland’s body politic or autonomy as a state. The habit of imagining an English insular exceptionalism in which Scotland is implied while simultaneously being excluded is common in analyses of the current crisis of the United Kingdom’s relation to Europe. Without positing a direct line of descent, I contend that such a habit was consciously fostered by the metaphors of English constitutional thought as it developed in the sixteenth century.
To give a current example: in 2016, the result of the British referendum on the question of whether or not to leave the European Union was manifestly split between a majority for “Leave” in England and an even more decisive majority for “Remain” within Scotland. In December 2019, this split was repeated, with a majority in England voting for Boris Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” Conservative manifesto, while in Scotland the Scottish National Party, the party of Remain, won a resounding majority. Yet in analyzing Boris Johnson’s appeal “to the millions of Brits . . . for whom many of the Conservative party’s prejudices and presumptions are simply common sense,” Professor of Politics Tim Bale, at Queen Mary University of London, articulates the issue in a way that signals the legacy of centuries of what I wish to analyze in this paper. The “most fundamental” presumption that “Brits” share with Boris Johnson, Bale wrote,
is the idea that Britain is, can be, and should be, Great. . . . To call that belief a sense of manifest destiny would be an exaggeration. But it is a patriotic attachment to the idea (however illusory) of an island nation, albeit one with global interests and reach, that is fundamentally unique and, yes, better than many of its closest neighbours, especially those unfortunate enough not to speak English—or else to speak it with a Scottish or southern Irish accent.
Bale’s is a skeptical diagnosis, but he nevertheless makes Scotland unthinkable. Scotland’s implicit (and essentially defining) inclusion in the terms “Brexit,” “millions of Brits,” and their attachment to an “island nation,” turns out to be illusory. Within a sentence, Scotland morphs from being part of “an island nation” into being the “closest neighbour” whose inferiority to and exclusion from insular exceptionalism is required to prove the British propriety of the latter. Bale by no means believes in the myth of British insularity, yet he fails to see how integral to it is a doublethink that has always rendered Scotland a nonplace: essential to the “Br” in “Brexit,” but in no real sense part of the English exceptionalism that demands to be “Great” or to be free of Europe.
It is the argument of this paper that Bale’s conceptual elision, part of the currency of everyday English thought, is the imaginative legacy of a conscious set of strategies shared by a number of genres of Elizabethan writing that were variously engaged in transforming the discourse of England’s claims to sovereignty over Scotland (till then grounded in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s legends of Brutus, Arthur, Leir, Kymbeline, and so on) into a pervasive metaphorics of English insular indigeneity. Some texts that contribute to this transformation are more obviously poetic or chorographic. Spenser’s Faerie Queene, for example, or William Harrison’s Description of the Iland of Britain, as well as William Camden’s Britannia and a range of tragedies that model their handling of “British” Galfridian material on Senecan tragedies of Thebes. Early modern legal fictions, though not to be conflated with epic poetry, drama, or chorography, also involve, as Victoria Kahn has shown, an element of poeisis or poetic making. Following Hans Blumenberg, Kahn calls Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies a “metaphorology.” In this paper, I want to engage in a metaphorology of the most elaborate theoretical account of the King’s Two Bodies in the Elizabethan period. It occurs in Edmund Plowden’s Treatise on the Succession, written in 1567 to support the Scottish Queen, Mary Stewart, in her claim to the English throne. In this treatise, the King’s Two Bodies is deployed not merely as a legal refutation of arguments against Mary’s right, as has been thought. Rather, its primary energies are what we would call literary or poetic. Subtly exploiting the somatic and sacred resonances of an established legal language of royal incorporation, the text works to transform a legendary and partisan English history of Scottish vassalage into an allegorical drama in which a Scottish body politic is bound to perpetual genuflection, its consequent lack of sovereign autonomy thereby rendered an immutable theological truth. The Treatise thus translates a historiographical dispute between nations into an English political theology of insular sovereignty that persists today in the “metaphors we live by,” the common currency of Brexit talk. Continue reading …
LORNA HUTSON is Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford. Her books include Thomas Nashe in Context (Oxford, 1989), The Usurer’s Daughter (Routledge, 1994), The Invention of Suspicion (Oxford, 2007), and Circumstantial Shakespeare (Oxford, 2015). She edited the Oxford Handbook of Law and Literature, 1500–1700 (2017) and is now working on a book entitled England’s Insular Imagining.