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


  • Frans-Willem Korsten


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


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.

Author Biography

Frans-Willem Korsten

Frans-Willem Korsten holds the chair of ‘Literature and Society’ at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication and works with the department of Literary studies at Leiden University. He is the author of Lessen in literatuur (Vantilt 2002, 2005, 2009); widely used as a handbook at several universities. Korsten has translated and rewritten his study in Dutch on Vondel and sovereignty as Sovereignty as Inviolability (Verloren, 2009). In 2011 Vondel, Dutch Playwright in the Golden Age is published by Brill, with contributions by more than twenty-five scholars from the Low Countries. Together with Joost de Bloois and Monica Jansen he is currently working on an international project concerning ‘precarity’. He is member of three editorial boards and is an advisor for several cultural organizations.




How to Cite

Korsten, F.-W. (2011). Facing it: sovereignty and how to live with theft and violence in the law – the case of Karel ende Elegast. Journal of Dutch Literature, 2(1). Retrieved from https://www.journalofdutchliterature.org/index.php/jdl/article/view/14