A ward at Hotel-Dieu in Paris.

No mediaeval text mentions the power of healing scrofula among the Merovingians and the Carolingians, but it is possible that certain princes of the time had been able to dispose of more general therapeutic powers.  Gregoire de Tours, evoking Gontran, the son of Clotaire I, in Book IX of his Historia Francorum, reports that it

“was commonly recounted among the Faithful that a woman, whose son [was] suffering from a quartan fever lying on his bed of pain, had slipped through the crowd to the King and, approaching him from behind, had torn a few fringes from his royal coat without him knowing;  she put them into water and made her son drink it;  immediately the fever dropped;  the patient recovered.  For my part, I do not doubt this thing.  In fact, I have myself very often seen demons, living inside possessed bodies, crying the name of this king and, unlocked by the virtue which emanated from him, confessing their crimes.”

The simple contact of Gontran’s clothes or the invocation of his name alone could, if we believe the famous Bishop of Tours, deliver patients from ills which were tormenting them.  The recognized piety of this person perhaps explains his reputation.  But his case remains unique.  No text evokes elsewhere any healing power which could be used by the Merovingian or Carolingian kings.  The relative abundance of the sources going back to the “Carolingian renaissance” lead us to think that, if miraculous healings had been performed during this period, they would have found a place in the contemporary accounts.  In the case of the first Capetians, we have a text by the monk Helgaud, author of a Vie of Robert II the Pious, who reports that

“divine virtue accorded to this perfect man a very great grace, that of healing bodies;  his very pious hand touching the patients’ wounds and marking them with the sign of the holy cross, he delivered them from pain and illness”.

Scrofula are not mentioned here but the similarity of the ritual can lead us to think that Robert the Pious was already practising what appeared to Guibert de Nogent to be a well-established tradition.  Only one reign, that of Henri I, which is otherwise very badly known, separates in fact those of Robert the Pious and Philippe I, which can reinforce the hypothesis according to which Robert the Pious could have been the origin of a tradition which would last for eight centuries.  The fact that Helgaud does not note any precedent can be interpreted in the same sense.  There is certainly no mention from him of scrofula and he even evokes, just before the passage concerning Robert the Pious’ powers, the King’s attitude toward lepers, but it can be imagined that the King’s sacred power was valid originally for all illnesses…  without anything, of course, allowing us to affirm it with certainty.  Therefore, the first Capetians, perhaps starting from Robert the Pious, the second king in the dynasty, touched and marked with the sign of the cross all sick people who came to them to profit from their reputation as healers.

Among these unfortunate people, there would certainly have been some scrofulous ones, scrofula then being one of the most common affections.  It is however, only a relatively benign illness, which suscitates more repugnance than it is really dangerous.  On top of which, it is an ill susceptible to remissions, even if they are often only apparent and temporary.  Some of the scrofulous touched by the King were therefore “cured”…  and the phenomenon was quite naturally attributed to the virtues of the royal touch.  A few cases are doubtless sufficient to establish the thaumaturgical reputation of the sovereign, who is soon transformed into a “specialist” of this illness.  This is only an hypothesis but it takes into account in a fairly precise manner what was reported by Helgaud about Robert the Pious and Guibert de Nogent about Philippe I and Louis VI the Fat.  At the end of his investigation (Les Rois thaumaturges.  Etude sur le caractere surnaturel attribue a la puissance royale), the historian Marc Bloch is therefore able to conclude in these terms:

“Robert the Pious, the second of the Capetians, was seen by his Faithful as possessing the gift of healing sick people.  His successors inherited his power;  but by transmitting it from generation to generation, this dynastic virtue became modified or, rather, became gradually more precise;  the idea was conceived that the royal touch was sovereign, not against all illnesses indistinctively but particularly against one of them, which was however very common:  scrofula;  from the reign of Philippe I – Robert’s grandson – this transformation was already complete.”


We have seen that Pierre de Blois, a cleric present at the end of the XIIth Century at the Court of Henry II de Plantagenet, gave an account of the healing powers of this soverign but, there again, we could question the origin of the English rite.  These thaumaturgical virtues were attributed to Edward the Confessor, one of the last Saxon kings.  This hypothesis has also benefited from the literary authority of Shakespeare with Macbeth.  One of the characters, Malcolm, reports in fact to his companion Macduff, speaking of King Edward, that

…strangely-visited people,

All swoln and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,

The mere despair of surgery, he cures;

Hanging a gold stamp about their necks,

Put on with holy prayers:  and ’tis spoken,

To the succeeding royalty he leaves

The healing benediction…

What is the truth?  The life and supernatural powers of Edward the Confessor are known from four sources:  the passages that William of Malmesbury consecrates to them in his Historia regum and three biographies of which one is anonymous, the two others being attributed respectively to Osbert of Clare and Ailred of Rievaulx.  All of these works date from the XIIth Century, an epoch which sees the canonisation of Edward the Confessor, which could only encourage his biographers to attribute miraculous healings to him.  One episode has particularly retained the attention of the historians.  It is the one which concerns a woman affected by a swelling of her neck glands.  Dipping his hands into water, the King places them on the sick part and makes several signs of the cross.  Blood and pus surge from it and, one week later, the patient is totally cured.  Even better, she soon gives a child to her husband when she had remained completely sterile until then.  This story appears very precious for our subject, however William of Malmesbury gives the precision that

“in our time, a few people use these miracles for lying works;  they claim that the King possessed the power of healing this malady, not by virtue of sainthood, but by heredity, as a privilege of royal race…”.

For the author, only saints can perform miracles and kings as well when they are saints, but there could be no hereditary power in this domain connected solely to royal blood.  The Pope also contested that such powers pertaining to the sacred could appear independently from sainthood which could only be judged by the Church…

To be continued.