A long line of men, women and children stretches out in front of the cathedral porch… They are from all social classes, of all ages. Some also come from as far away as Spain, or Calabra… Some are dressed in rags, others in furs and silks. All are united in the same fervour, the same hope. All of them bear the stigmata of the “king’s evil”. On the necks and faces of these sick people, the same open swellings, the same putrid wounds, can be seen… A few of them are already disfigured. A fetid odour floats around this unfortunate crowd that awaits the King of France.
At last, he appears on the porch, dressed in the splendour of the insignia of his function. He is not shocked by, nor even afraid of, the terrible sight that he sees. He knows his duty, he knows his power. One by one, the scrofulous approach the sovereign. He leans over humbly and stretches out a gloveless hand. He touches the open wounds, which are called at this time “scrofula” or the “king’s evil” in English, ecrouelles or le mal royal in French.
“The King touches thee, God heals thee.”
The gesture is repeated tirelessly, as often as a patient presents himself. On this day, there are more than a thousand.
And none of these men and women doubts that the King’s hand has injected into his or her suffering body a little of the magic that it contains, by divine will.
Drawn from the Latin word scrofula, the French word ecrouelles designates what today’s doctors identify as tuberculous adenitis, an inflamation of the lymphatic ganglia due to the tuberculosis bacillus. The ganglia which are the most easily attacked by this malady are those of the neck. The ill, when it is not treated, can spread to the face, which, in the past, could lead to an amalgamation of tuberculous adenitis and diverse other affections which the state of the medical science of the time did not permit to identify and precisely distinguish. The absence of an efficient therapy and the inexistence of elementary hygiene until the XIXth Century, lead us to believe that affections of this type were very widespread, which would explain the importance attributed to the thaumaturgical power of the sovereigns.
This ill, more or less endemic according to the regions, was rarely mortal but it disfigured those who were affected; their faces “were corrupted” and their wounds “gave off a fetid smell”. However, patients hoped for a rapid cure, even more so if it had a miraculous character. For the French and English sovereigns had the power of curing the victims of this terrible ill, simply by touching them with their hands, according to a precise rite. This is at least what their peoples believed until the XVIIIth Century… What was the origin of this belief, this unusual superstition, rooted in the sacred character of traditional monarchy?
The first mention that we possess of the healing of scrofula by the royal touch goes back to the beginning of the XIIth Century. Guibert, Abbot of Nogent-sous-Coucy, the author of a Traite des reliques des saints, in which he attacks the “forgers” of Saint-Medard-de-Soissons – who claim to possess one of the Lord’s milk teeth – recalls, in the rather muddled pages of his work, the completely orthodox doctrine, according to which, miracles do not in themselves constitute an indication of sainthood. To underline his words, he cites multiple examples taken from biblical tradition, even ancient authors, before adding a totally decisive witness report on the origin of touching scrofula:
“What say I? Have we not seen our Lord, King Louis, use an habitual prodigy? I have seen with my own eyes patients suffering from scrofula on the neck, or in other parts of the body, hasten in crowds to be touched by him, a touch to which he adds a sign of the cross. I was there, right next to him, and I even protected him against being importuned by them. The King however, showed his innate generosity toward them; pulling them to him with his serene hand, he humbly made upon them the sign of the cross. His father Philippe had also exercised, with ardour, this same miraculous and glorious power; and I do not know what faults, committed by him, made him lose it.”
The two sovereigns evoked in these lines are Philippe I and Louis VI the Fat. There is no fabulation in the account of Guibert de Nogent – who met Louis VI at Laon. The scene that he describes – the touching followed by the sign of the cross – well corresponds to the rite for which we dispose of multiple posterior witness reports. Louis VI reigns from 1108 to 1137 and his father from 1060 to 1108, which takes us back to the middle of the XIth Century. The “faults” announced by Guibert, which he says he doesn’t know, certainly evoke the adulterous union of the King with Bertade de Montfort, a sin which had him excommunicated.
This witness report presents exceptional interest, for we must wait until the reign of Saint Louis [Louis IX], which goes from 1226 to 1270, to find another text about the touching of scrofula. The power which Saint Louis possessed for curing the scrofulous then appears totally traditional and it can be thought that Louis VII, Philippe Auguste and Louis VIII, their immediate predecessors, were also invested with it. We can see here the difficulties facing the historians who tried to find the origin of this rite. Luck permitted Guibert’s treatise to be conserved, and roughly ten lines show us that Philippe I had this power at his disposition. It is impossible not to think that such a power goes back to a period older than the XIth Century, as it appears to be connected to mentalities which have remained traditional, perhaps even a bit archaic.
Questions were asked very early about this magical power attributed to the sovereigns, including at the French Court, as early as the XVIth and XVIIth Centuries. Henri IV, after having touched scrofula one Easter, provoked, at Fontainebleau, a controversy opposing the First Doctor Andre du Laurens, the Chaplain Guillaume du Peyrat and the Historiographer Pierre Mathieu. The doctor and the historiographer say that the King’s therapeutic powers go back to Clovis, while the chaplain rejects the idea that such miracles could have been accomplished by the sovereigns of the first and second races.
To be continued.