Monarchy's Changed Face

By Bankston Iii, Carl L. | Commonweal, June 2, 2000 | Go to article overview

Monarchy's Changed Face


Bankston Iii, Carl L., Commonweal


The Power of Kings
Monarchy and Religion
in Europe, 1589-1715
Paul Kleber Monod
Yale University Press, $35, 417 pp.

In the political sociology of Max Weber, the modernization of political systems is essentially a movement from traditional authority to rational authority. The rule of bureaucracy and abstract law, according to Weber, gradually replaces the personal power of sacred individuals. Kings give way to committees.

In his new book, Paul Kleber Monod, who has previously specialized in the political history of England after 1688, attempts an ambitious Weberian interpretation of the transformation of royal power across Europe. He argues that kings were not replaced by bureaucracies as the modern world emerged, but that there was a gradual trend toward the rationalization of the role of the monarch. The divine monarchs of the beginning of early modern Europe based their authority on a sacredness borrowed from Christianity. By the early eighteenth century, though, kings were human symbols of national identity, rather than religious symbols. Sin and salvation became matters of private and individual concern, while political and communal life came under new forms of governmental regulation.

The rationalization of monarchy was a trend that took varied forms. Monod's history takes him around most of Europe. While he devotes the greatest attention to England, France, and Spain, he also looks at the lands of the Holy Roman Empire, Russia, Poland, Sweden, and Denmark. Drawing on art history, literature, and political philosophy, Monod probes the changes in the social role of royalty with an impressive variety of sources.

The historian begins his discussion with the assassination of Henry III of France in 1589. The Catholic League opposed Henry III for accepting as his heir Henry of Navarre, who was then Protestant. The assassination, by a Dominican friar, highlighted a European crisis regarding the body of the king. Protestantism challenged sacred kingship by demystifying the royal body. Counter-Reformation Catholicism sought to return the sacred to the church, recasting monarchs as the servants of faith. Kingly divinity was under attack from all sides. In this intriguing reinterpretation of Weber, traditional authority does not simply give way to secular rationalization. Instead, religious beliefs undermined the sacred character of monarchy, so that the reorganization of government along bureaucratic lines can be seen as having its roots in religion.

Throughout Europe, princes and their advisors sought to find new ideological bases for rule in response to the weakening of divine monarchy. For example, Monod interprets Giuseppe Arcimboldo's famous painting of Emperor Rudolf II as an assemblage of fruits and vegetables as one such strategy. It was, in Monod's view, an effort to represent the emperor as a nature deity. In Elizabethan and Jacobean England, jurists developed the concept of the "two bodies" to answer questions about the divine nature of the ruler: The sovereign is composed of a mortal "body natural" and a "body politic" identified with the state. This dualism was an effort to strengthen the mystical monarchy by defining the sacred portion of the monarch. In France, the lawyer and political theorist Jean Bodin attempted to replace the mystical image of the king with the idea of the king as a father figure. …

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