Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
From the 12th to the 19th centuries, the people of France and England really believed their king’s touch could heal them of scrofula. Why did they believe it? Were they ignorant superstitious simpletons who knew no better? I do not think so. Before you toss up your hands and write me off as a crank, let me explain.
What is Scrofula?
According to ‘Adenochoiradelogia,’a well-respect medical text of the time written by John Browne, surgeon-in-ordinary to Charles II of England, an excess of phlegm caused scrofula in the glands. It caused the neck to become inflamed.
Modern medicine calls it tuberculous cervical lymphadenitis, a type of tuberculosis, caused by bacteria, that presents as swelling of the lymph nodes of the neck.
Theories of Disease and Treatment Then and Now
Browne’s theory of medicine was based on the ancient Greek theory of humours; that good health depended on a balance among the four humours. They were phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile.
Since the swellings arose from the “cold and moist” humour, he recommended hot and dry medicines. He prescribed such powdered mixtures as cinnamon, pepper and salt taken in various teas. Most efficacious of all, in his opinion, was the king’s touch.
If one of the best doctors of the time was plugging the king’s touch as the best treatment, how can we blame the masses for believing it worked. Especially now, when we see what people are willing to believe from unqualified people about cures for Covid?
The germ-based theory of disease did not even exist until the early 18th century and was not accepted as fact until the late 19th century. The antibiotics we now use to treat scrofula were not discovered until the twentieth century. Even now, when doctors treat it with antibiotics, it may take up to 9 months of treatment to cure.
How Did People Come to Believe the King Had the Power?
Many events coincided to foster the belief that the King’s Touch could really cure scrofula. Most stem from the destruction of the western Roman Empire and its impact on life in western Europe.
A lack of knowledge about the causes of disease
- During the early medieval period, people incorrectly believed illness spread either through ‘bad air’ or from spontaneous generation. Therefore, no one worried about, for example, separating clean water from that infected with human or animal waste, or about touching sick people, crowding them together into beds, or sharing their unwashed cups, garments, bedding, etc. Thus, it is no surprise that diseases spread like wildfire and people died in droves.
Inability to treat disease effectively
- Treatments themselves were based on ancient Greek and Arabic knowledge. Much had been lost as Roman institutions like libraries and hospitals disappeared. It was gathered and spread in fragmented form from scattered manuscripts over the next millennium and mixed with much folklore. As a result, doctors provided various, often horrific, treatments and cures were very much hit and miss. Success rates were low.
A hierarchical society and a belief in the divine right of kings
- Creation of a feudal social hierarchy that arose after the breakdown of the Roman Empire led to a philosophical view that there was a natural hierarchical order both in heaven and earth. In this view, God stood atop the heavenly hierarchy, and He chose the king to top the earthly one. Moreover, God demonstrated His choice of ruler by granting the king the ability to cure this specific disease.
- By the Late Middle Ages, the ability to perform the royal touch was included in the coronation ceremony. In France, the officiant anointed the king’s hands, which conferred upon him the ability to cure. Immediately thereafter he journeyed to Corbeny, the site of the shrine of Saint Marcouf (d. 558), patron saint of the scrofulous. Once he completed this pilgrimage, he and everyone in France accepted he possessed the sacred power of the king’s touch.
The growth of the power of the Universal Roman Catholic Church
- The Christian faith eliminated its competitors and spread throughout Europe. Literacy was almost entirely limited to the priestly class. The Church required an orthodoxy that defended miracles, spirits, unseen beings, the efficacy of prayer to effect outcomes in the material world and did not encourage experimentation in thinking or practice
The political need of monarchy to prove its legitimacy.
- Modern Historians dispute when and how the belief in the king’s touch emerged. They agree, though, the royal gift of healing originated in medieval France. Medievalist Marc Bloch (1886–1944) argued that it was probably Philip I, a weak king who was excommunicated several times. Modern scholars, notably Frank Barlow (1911–2009), argue that the French practice most likely originated with Saint Louis IX (r. 1226–1270), who brought it back from the mid-East when her returned from the Crusades. They conclude that kings who touch most often have most need to prove their right to the throne.
- In the worsening conditions of the French Wars of Religion (1562–1598), scrofula spread more than ever and the efficacy of the king’s touch became politicized. The Catholic League proclaimed that Henry III (r. 1574–1589) could not heal by touch because he was so immoral. After his assassination, when the Protestant Henry IV ascended (r. 1589–1610), the League warned that God would revoke His gift, if Catholics permitted a Protestant to reign.
- To prove his legitimacy after converting to Catholicism, Henri IV took advantage of the ability attributed to kings and use it to confirm his legitimacy. At Easter, two weeks after his coronation, he performed the king’s touch ceremony for the first time. Henry refused to show any skepticism about the ritual or the cure, fearing it might cast doubt on the sincerity of his conversion.
The Disease Itself
- The final reason the belief persisted lies in the nature of the disease. As stated earlier, scrofula is a tuberculous of the lymph nodes. It appears as large unsightly nodular swellings on the sides of the neck. They often ooze, are almost impossible to hide, and appear disfiguring. However, they are rarely fatal, and the disease often goes into remission on its own.
- Given how low the cure rate was for any disease during the period, it is plausible that the king’s ‘cures’ occurred often enough to provide a rational basis for belief—or, at least, just as rational as any other treatment.
How and When did the King Perform the Touch Ceremony?
Typically, the king performed the touch ceremony as part of another church service, usually after the morning prayers. In France, the king usually performed it on a holy day or a special occasion. Most often, he conducted the event in cooler weather. Doctors believed it was safer between Michaelmas and Easter because the disease spread less easily then. To start, the priest read passages from the Gospels of Mark (16: 14–20) and John (1: 1–14). Mark 16 contains themes that confirm the monarch’s immunity to infectious diseases: “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” (Mark 16:18) The priest then offered prayers.
As the king touched the face or neck of the infected person, he said, “The King touches you, God cures you.” (French: “Le Roy te touche et Dieu te guérit.”) to effect the cure. After the monarch performed the touch, he or the person assisting hung a gold coin around the person’s neck and instructed the diseased individual to wear the coin constantly to ensure the success of the treatment.
So, Could The King’s Touch Really Heal Scrofula?
From a modern, medical point of view, most would say that it is impossible that the king could cure scrofula. However, it is a disease that goes into remission, and we know our minds are powerful tools that can effect changes in our body through our beliefs.
So, I think it is quite possible that in an age of faith, when everyone—from the king to the church to the medical establishment to the diseased individuals themselves—believed that the king’s touch could cure scrofula, there were many occasions after the ceremony that individual cases went into remission.
I admit this is a personal conclusion that I have found in no other document. I am not sure how one would find evidence, though after ceremonies there are many reports of cure. If no cures ever occurred, it would be like the story of the Emperor’s new clothes. At some point over hundreds of years, the rumours would grow loud that the king’s touch didn’t actually work. That never happened. Perhaps one could gather the reports of cures as a way of gathering evidence. These have always been pooh-poohed, but why should they be? They are a measure of the reason for belief if nothing else.
Conclusion: Why Do I Care?
In my next book, The Importance of Sons, there is a scene in which King Charles VIII performs the king’s touch ceremony at Easter in Lyon. It is a solemn and joyful occasion. I could not write it from a place of complete skepticism. Besides, I have great respect for the people of the time. It got me thinking. This is where my thinking had led me. I would love to hear your opinion. Let me know in the comments.
Here are the sources I used to gather information for this piece, in no particular order.
The Royal Touch. Sacred Monarchy and Scrofula in England and France, Mark Bloch. Trans J. E. Anderson, London 1973
The Divine Power of Kings to Heal by Touch, https://daily.jstor.org/the-divine-power-of-kings-to-heal-by-touch/
Healing By The King’s Touch. JAMA. 1927;88(8):568–569. doi:10.1001/jama.1927.02680340040013
Susan Wheeler, Medicine in Art: Henry IV of France Touching for Scrofula, by Pierre Firens, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Volume 58, Issue 1, January 2003, Pages 79–81, https://doi.org/10.1093/jhmas/58.1.79
Barlow, Frank. “The King’s Evil.” The English Historical Review, vol. 95, no. 374, Oxford University Press, 1980, pp. 3–27, http://www.jstor.org/stable/569080. “When Monarchs Healed The Sick”, by Rita Yates and Steven Pocock, 27 July 2021