Body politic

For other uses, see Body politic (disambiguation).
Cover of Hobbes' Leviathan shows a body formed of multitudinous citizens, surmounted by a king's head.[1]

body politic is a metaphor that regards a nation as a corporate entity,[2] likened to a human body. Here the word "politic" is a postpositive adjective: this is "a body of a politic nature", rather than "a politic of a bodily nature". A body politic comprises all the people in a particular country, considered as a single group. The analogy typically includes reference to the top of the government as head of state,[3] though the analogy may also be extended to other anatomical parts, as in political readings of Aesop's fable of "The Belly and the Members".

A later European reference to the concept appears in The Book of the Body Politic (1407) by poet and court writer Christine de Pizan, in which she admits having borrowed the concept from a letter of Plutarch's to the Roman Emperor Trajan but does not mention John of Salisbury's work, Policraticus.[4][5] The metaphor appears in the French language as the corps-état.[6] The metaphor was elaborated in the Renaissance, and subsequently, as medical knowledge based on Galen was challenged by thinkers such as William Harvey. Analogies were drawn between supposed causes of disease and disorder and their equivalents in the political field, viewed as plagues or infections that might be remedied with purges and nostrums.[7]

Medieval origins

"Body politic" derives from the mediæval political concept of the King's two bodies first noted by mediaeval historian Ernst Kantorowicz,[8] as a point of theology as much as statehood. The person to give the concept some legal bite and codified reality, as much as legitimacy as well as Sovereignty, was the 14th century Judge Sir William de Shareshull in 1351 for the offence of High treason in the aftermath of the Barons war.[9] However, by the time of the fifteenth-century judge Sir John Fortescue the concept moves away from theology to jurisprudence in his The Difference between an Absolute and a Limited Monarchy, written from exile in about 1462 . Fortescue explains that the character angelus (divine character) of the king is his royal power, derived from angels and separate from the frail physical powers of his body. However, he uses the phrase body politic itself only in its modern sense, to describe the realm, or shared rule, of Brutus, mythical first king of England, and how he and his fellow exiles had covenanted to form a body politic. Unusually for the time, Fortescue was writing in English and not Latin: "made a body pollitike callid a reawme."[2]

Literal manifestation

In 1550 the jurist Edmund Plowden merged Fortescue's concepts, at the same time removing them from abstraction into a real, physical manifestation in the body of the king. Plowden reports how lawyers codified this notion in an examination of a case of land-ownership turning on a disputed gift by an earlier monarch; they determined that the "Body politic…that cannot be seen or handled…[is] constituted for the direction of the People…[and] these two bodies are incorporated in one person…the Body politic includes the [king's] Body natural."[10] In 1609 Attorney General Edward Coke pronounced his dissenting opinion, that mortal power was God-made while the immortality of royal power existed only as a man-made concept; Coke later succeeded in limiting the royal power of both Charles I and James VI and I with his now infamous judgements of Case of Proclamations and also with his Petition of Right, which triggered off the English Civil War and would have reverberations right across the country for the next 100 years. When the monarchy, in the person of Charles II, was restored at the end of the Commonwealth the idea remained current and royalty continued to use the notion, as a buttress to its authority, until an assertion of the rights of Parliament brought about the Glorious Revolution of 1688.[11][12] In the 18th century jurists and highly influential judge Sir William Blackstone by the time of the 18th century still maintains the medieval idea and most certainly the legal argument of the monarch as ‘immortal’ which still stands today with added emphasis of a quasi divine (character angelus) being.[13]

The pre-Revolution monarchs of France also claimed legitimacy on this principle, and extended it to include the idea that the king's heir assimilated the "body politic" of the old king, in a physical "transfer of corporeality", on accession.[14]

See also


  1. Kenneth Olwig (2002), Landscape, nature, and the body politic, University of Wisconsin Press, p. 87, ISBN 978-0-299-17424-8, The frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan ... is a particularly famous example of the depiction of the body politic ...
  2. 1 2 "body politic", Oxford English Dictionary, A nation regarded as a corporate entity
  3. A. D. Harvey (2007), Body politic: political metaphor and political violence, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, ISBN 978-1-84718-272-2
  4. Christine de Pizan The Book of the Body Politic pp.xviii-xx Kate Langdon Forhan 1994.
  5. The Book of the Body Politic pp.3-5 1994
  6. de Baecque, Antoine (1997). The Body Politic: Corporeal Metaphor in Revolutionary France, 1770-1800. Trans. Charlotte Mandell. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. p. xv. ISBN 978-0-8047-2817-1.
  7. Jonathan Harris (1998), Foreign bodies and the body politic: discourses of social pathology in early modern England, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-59405-9
  8. Ernst Kantorowicz The King's Two Bodies 1957
  9. The Treason Act 1351 Declaration what Offences shall be adjudged Treason 25 Edw 3 St 5 c 2 1351
  10. Kantorowicz, Ernst H (1957). The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 9. ISBN 0691071209.
  11. Kantorowicz (1957: 423)
  12. Olwig (2002: 102)
  13. The ancient legal maxim is that ‘the King never dies’. According to Blackstone,”the King survives in his successor” and “the right of the Crown vests, eo instanti, upon his heirs”. Thus in legal theory the monarch is regarded as immortal and there is no moment in which the throne is vacant”. Halsbury's Laws of England Crown and Royal Family Volume 12(1)
  14. de Baecque (1997: 100–102)
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