A ward at Hotel-Dieu in Paris.

William of Malmesbury’s text dates from the years 1124-1125 and is roughly contemporary to that of Guibert de Nogent, evoked previously, concerning the thaumaturgical powers of Louis VI and Philippe I.  However, as Guibert also tells us, wanting to assure that the King of France has the exclusivity of this sacred power:

“What do the other kings do on the subject of healing scrofula?  I shall keep silent on this point;  however, I do not hide that the King of England has never had the audacity to try it.”

Words which, compared to those of William of Malmesbury, lead us to believe on the contrary that King Henry I Beauclerc, who is reigning at the time across the Channel, has also “touched” scrofula.  It can be imagined that this same Henry I, wanting to reinforce his legitimacy, has done all that he can to attribute to Edward the Confessor – a saint well known for the numerous cures that he had accomplished – the more particular power of relieving patients affected by scrofula.  As the episode of the cured woman who becomes fecund remains unique, the anonymous biography of the saint-King, written under the reign of Henry I, reports that

“this miracle was new for us…”

but that

“the King had frequently accomplished it during his adolescence when he was living in Neustria, a country that is today called Normandy;  we know about it through the reports of French witnesses”.

It appears therefore that it is, without any doubt, Henry I who is the first to attribute the power of healing scrofula to himself, it already being recognized by his adversary, the Capetian sovereign.  To confer the virtues of sufficient age to this novelty, he has this power attributed by the authors of the time to Edward the Confessor, whose prestige can therefore serve to support the legitimacy of the new Anglo-Norman dynasty.


Once the origin of the rite has been posed, it is appropriate, to understand the repercussions, to place it in the more general context of sacred royalty, which then constitutes the superior form of political power.  Royalty did not engender belief in the healing powers of the kings everywhere, but it nevertheless constituted the necessary condition for its emergence.  The temptation of numerous researchers from the beginning of the XXth Century was to compare the touching of scrofula to magical virtues attributed to certain sovereigns of “primitive” societies.  The work of anthropologists on the sacred, naturally encouraged the establishment of such analogies, but they appear very precarious, and a comparison which is too superficial can be counter-productive.  It is certain that the Kings of Tonga have the power of both giving illness and of curing it, but James Frazer, in Le Rameau d’or, advances on too uncertain terrain when he claims that

“scrofula probably received the name of the King’s Evil because it was believed that the touch of a king could transmit them just as well as curing them”.

Nothing in the little documentation of which we dispose can allow us to retain such a scenario for the XIth and XIIth Centuries nor for the most distant periods.

In fact, belief in the thaumaturgical powers of the French and English sovereigns is above all connected to the sacred character invested in them.  It is because he is the “Christ of the Lord”, to employ Pierre de Blois’ expression about Henry II Plantagenet, that the King will afterwards, and only afterwards, dispose of miraculous powers.  The Capetians affirmed that they were the heirs of the Carolingians and the Merovingians, and the Anglo-Norman dynasty inserted itself into the tradition of the Anglo-Saxon sovereigns.  It is therefore to the ancient Germanic royalties that we must turn to analyse the sacred dimension of the monarchies which would flourish in France and England after the year 1000.

The ancient Goth or Herule kings were sacred beings, not so much as individuals, but because they belonged to a line, a family, a clan invested with a supernatural power which they used for the service of the community.  A good deed, which guaranteed military victories and abundant harvests.  Nothing however allows us to speak of thaumaturgical power, and the mention, in the XIIIth Century, of cures performed by the King of Norway, Saint Olaf, in fact concerns a sovereign already following christianism…  It can be imagined that these particular powers capable of relieving individuals, instead of the whole community, only appeared after christianisation when, because of the gradual disappearance of pagan traditions, the sacred sovereign lost the power to command the elements, and therefore to guarantee the abundant harvests necessary for the prosperity of the group.  The power to heal was therefore a sort of residue of much more important prorogatives which were previously associated with sacred royalty.  The great upheavals consecutive to the Germanic invasions and the christianisation of the peoples who had remained “barbarous” until then, would allow biblical and christian justification to be given to the sacred dimension which previously characterised royalty.  Therefore, the model of bibilical royalty very naturally inspires the new Germanic monarchies, and it is in this way that the rite of unction imposes itself in the West, in reference to David and Solomon.

Unction of olive oil mixed with aromates was used by the Hebrews during the consecration of altars, priests and kings.  The rite then passes from the Mosaic cult to that of the Christians.  Three holy oils are used:  the holy chrism, the catachumen oil and the oil of the infirm.  The ceremonies consist in anointing a person, sometimes a place or an object, with holy oil, so as to consecrate them or confer certain graces on them.  This covers the Consecration of bishops, Confirmation, the Ordination of priests, the Dedication of churches or the Benediction of bells…

The practice of unction appears firstly among the Wisigoths of Spain before arriving in the Frank kingdom.  Clovis was only baptised, and the unction received in Reims was only the sign of his conversion.  We have to wait until 751 and the usurpation decided by Pepin the Brief to see the new sovereign receive an unction inspired by memories of the Old Testament.  In 816, Louis I the Pious therefore receives the imperial crown in Reims, from the hands of Pope Etienne IV, at the same time as the unction of blessed oil.  From the time of Charles the Bald in France, a few decades later in England, the two rites become inseparable in the Coronation ceremony, which Hincmar of Reims tells us confers

“more than terrestrial power, royal dignity”.

A few decades before him, Pope Etienne II did not hesitate to declare to Charles and Carloman, the two heirs of Pepin the Brief, that they were decended from

“the holy, royal and sacerdotal race”

and Fulbert de Chartres would address Robert the Pious, more than two centuries later, using the title of “Holy Father”…  It is this sacred character, regularly re-affirmed, that would very naturally lead to the birth of the belief in a specific healing power.

To be continued.