Facing it: sovereignty and how to live with theft and violence in the law – the case of Karel ende Elegast

Frans-Willem Korsten


In what is probably the most famous medieval Dutch epic, Karel ende Elegast (Charles and Elegast), King Charlemagne is ordered by an angel, sent by God, to go out and steal. In so doing Charlemagne finds out that there is a plot against his life. His rule seems therefore to be dependent, in the final analysis, by divine support and sanction. This article argues, however, that the story depicts the constitution of Charles’s rule differently. As a sovereign, he is a violent king-thief or thiefking. The story illustrates that sovereignty always implies theft and violence, as being within the law itself. Ironically, dealing with Charlemagne as a sovereign, the story may offer not just a specifically medieval, but also a structural option for subjects living under the rule of law of a sovereign. This option allows them to accept the law in not accepting it. The extreme manifestation of this option may be that subjects allow themselves to suspend the rule of law; a possibility that runs counter to Carl Schmitt’s influential definition of sovereignty.


Sovereignty; State of Exception; Violence; Constitution of Law; Irony

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