Cover image for The king's body : sacred rituals of power in medieval and early modern Europe
The king's body : sacred rituals of power in medieval and early modern Europe
Bertelli, Sergio.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Corpo del re. English
[English edition].
Publication Information:
University Park, Pa. : Pennsylvania State University Press, [2001]

Physical Description:
xviii, 302 pages : illustrations, maps ; 26 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
JC375 .B4613 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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The King's Body offers a unique and up-to-date overview of a central theme in European history: the nature and meaning of the sacred rituals of kingship. Informed by the work of recent cultural anthropologists, Sergio Bertelli explores the cult of kingship, which pervaded the lives of hundreds of thousands of subjects, poor and rich, noble and cleric. His analysis takes in a wide spectrum, from the Vandal kings of Spain and the long-haired kings of France, to the beheaded kings of England and France, Charles I and Louis XVI.

Bertelli explores the multiple meanings of the rites related to the king's body, from his birth (with the exhibition of his masculinity) to the crowning (a rebirth) to his death (a triumph and an apotheosis). We see how particular occasions such as entrances, processions, and banquets make sense only as they related directly to the king's body. Bertelli also singles out crowd-participatory aspects of sacred kingship, including the rites of violence connected with the interregnum (perceived as a suspension of the law) and the rites of expulsion for a tyrant's body, emphasizing the inversion of crowning rituals.

First published in Italy in 1990, The King's Body has been revised and updated for English-speaking readers and expertly translated from the Italian by R. Burr Litchfield. Deftly argued and amply illustrated, this book is a perfect introduction to the cult of kingship in the West; at the same time, it illuminates for modern readers how strangely different the medieval and early modern world was from our own.

Author Notes

Sergio Bertelli is Professor of History at the University of Florence
R. Burr Litchfield is Professor of History at Brown University
Jacket illustration: Florentine school, fifteenth century, detail of a panel from a nuptual casket showing the 1443 triumph of Alfonso V of Aragon (The Magnanimous) in Naples.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Since the 18th century, political theory has focused on the making of the state rather than on the role of the king or sovereign as political ruler. Relying on minute details and exhaustive research, Bertelli, a historian at the University of Florence, demonstrates that from the early Middle Ages up through the 17th century the centrality of the sovereign provided the key element in maintaining the order of society. Societies thought of their kings as divine. The king's body thus became the ground where the sacred and the profane, the supernatural and the natural intersected. Consequently, Bertelli argues, rituals developed emphasizing the divine sovereignty of the king. In one of his most interesting examples, Bertelli explores the ways that the death of a sovereign led to both an interregnum where the law was suspended temporarily as the realm waited for a new ruler and for the body of the king to decompose and to attempts to bury the king's body parts in various locations so that he would be present throughout the kingdom. In rich detail, Bertelli looks at sacred rituals surrounding birth, enthronement and death that defined kingship, showing that in the Middle Ages the modern distinction between the political and the religious did not exist. His study will be accessible and of interest primarily to scholars. 91 illus. (Dec.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Blending methodologies of cultural anthropology, critical theory, and social history, Bertelli (Univ. of Florence) argues for the function of the ruler's body as a sacralized image of power and community identity in medieval and early modern Europe. He resituates the cult of the ruler away from the intellectual subtleties of scholars and jurists described in Ernst Kantorowicz's The King's Two Bodies (1957) to a much deeper need of human communities to participate in rituals of power. Rituals are a form of communication that "has an active and constructive function in a given society." From the Roman Empire to the collapse of the ancien regime, these rituals had a profoundly religious character, so much so that one can speak of a religio regis. Bertelli shows how rituals, ranging from the outbreaks of violence attending the deaths of monarchs to such seemingly bizarre practices as the roasting of stuffed bulls and the papal ostentatio genitalium, all had as their object the veneration of the sovereign, whose cult unified high and low, literate and illiterate. This revised and augmented translation of the original Italian publication (1990) is very welcome, although one must lament the unacceptable number of translator's errors. Recommended for upper-division undergraduates and above. C. F. Briggs Georgia Southern University

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. IX
Preface to the First Editionp. XIII
Preface to the English Editionp. XV
Introductionp. I
Part I Triumph and Death
1 His Majestyp. 10
2 Viva Lexp. 35
3 Rituals of Violencep. 39
4 Qui Venit in Nomine Dominip. 62
5 A Baldacchino, Horse Trappings, and a Fistful of Moneyp. 97
6 Stuffed Bulls and Plenty of Oatsp. 114
Part II The Natural Body
7 A Wax Lambp. 128
8 Oriens Augustip. 139
9 Magnanimi Lombip. 151
10 Spurious Offspringp. 171
11 Ostentatio Genitaliump. 177
12 The Lord's Dinnerp. 191
Part III The End of Sacredness
13 The King Is Dead!p. 214
14 The Body Deniedp. 231
15 Nolite Tangere Christos Meosp. 253
Bibliographyp. 271
Indexp. 297