A ward at Hotel-Dieu in Paris.

The minds of the time attributed a power to all that was sacred, a power which was most often benevolent and only perpetuated the system of belief which prevailed at the time of paganism.  In Roman Gaul, where we have multiple examples, patients give certain water sources the task of relieving their ills.  Transferred to the innumerable saints who are themselves the heirs of traditional polytheism, this capacity for healing will quite naturally be accorded to some sovereigns who, in the minds of their peoples, will keep for a long time this sacerdotal dimension, formerly attached to their functions.  Royal sanctity, coming from the unction received on the day of the Coronation, is sufficient to give thaumaturgical power to the prince.  It is in these conditions, particular to the time, characterised by an omnipresence of the divine and the sacred, that must be placed the apparition of miraculous healings attributed to the French and English monarchs.  Minds are disposed to accord them the credit, but the rite must also take form and be imposed, which will be done by certain sovereigns, anxious to reinforce the legitimacy of their power in this way.


The second representative of the Capetian dynasty, Robert the Pious, is associated with political power by his father from 987, the date of his accession to the throne.  The new masters of the kingdom dispose only of a not yet well-established authority, while the prestige of the Carolingian dynasty still persists.  The Assembly which chooses Hugues Capet at Senlis, thereby starts an elective principle which proves redoubtable for the new reigning family in the end.  Some high-ranking clerics – Adalberon de Laon, who participated in the royal election, and Abbon – do not hesitate to consider the elective model for the designation of kings to be normal, and contest the principle of hereditary succession, to justify the Capetian usurpation.  In these conditions, it can be imagined that the sovereigns of the new dynasty are determined – like the Carolingians before them with the help of the unction – to reinforce their legitimacy by attributing supernatural powers to themselves, which valorise them in comparison to their predecessors.  Robert II’s reputation for piety must have facilitated things.  The initiative doubtless came from patients convinced that the contact of a pious king was going to assure them a rapid cure, but it is probable that it was the sovereign himself and his entourage who knew how to use it to their best advantage.  It is also certain that the King and those close to him were intimately convinced of the reality of the healing power which emanated from the monarch.  The “successes” of the touching – for there were certainly some – were sufficient to establish the tradition, regularly taken up by Robert II’s successors in the measure that it contributed to the prestige of their line.

Robert the Pious has been dead since 1031 and two sovereigns, Henri I and Philippe I, have already succeeded him, when Henry I Beauclerc – who will be the first English king to touch scrofula – receives the Crown.  The fact that he also cures this malady has led Marc Bloch to think that he was above all thinking to imitate his Capetian rival by relying on the memory of Edward the Confessor, the famous Anglo-Saxon healing king, as we have seen.  He wanted to appropriate the memory of this prestigious king, at a moment when the pretensions of the Papacy were aiming to deprive the sovereigns of their sacred dimension, the better to submit them to spiritual power.  Having appeared around the year 1000 in France, one century later in England, the rite of touching is finally reserved for the king alone.  The magical power, the healing power, no longer belongs, like before, to a whole race, a whole family.


The apparition and the recognition of this particular power therefore imply the affirmation of hereditary succession which only benefits the eldest son;  they are closely connected to the emergence of the new monarchies which will be, over the centuries, at the origin of the great dynastic States to which the tradition of touching scrofula will confer considerable power and prestige.  Born of a general mental climate, of a collection of beliefs strongly impregnating the minds of the time, the regular practice of this touching of scrofula is also doubtless the aim of a political will which knows how to accord itself to public expectations at an epoch which is profoundly marked by the sense of the sacred and the hope of a miracle.

In the beginning, the French and English rites appear identical, but a few differences pop up over time.  We know for example that, according to the treatise by Etienne de Conty which is composed at the beginning of Charles VI’s reign, the water in which the French sovereigns wash their hands after having touched the sick is collected and drunk by the patients for nine days, which guarantees their complete cure.  A belief whose trace is not found in England where the King will take on the custom of giving the scrofulous a coin.  The royal gesture is accompanied by the pronunciation of diverse formulae about which Geoffroi de Beaulieu reports, concerning Saint Louis [Louis IX of France], that they are

“appropriate for the circumstance, and sanctioned by custom, perfectly holy also and Catholic”.

They are the same “holy and religious” words that Philippe le Bel will teach on his death-bed to his successor, the future Louis X le Hutin.  We do not know what these words were that were pronounced all through the Middle Ages, for the famous formula “The King touches thee, God heals thee” seems only to appear in the XVIth Century.  On the contrary, the English sovereigns appear only to have said prayers at the moment of touching the sick.  This fact is attested as early as Edward III and leads to a whole fairly complex liturgy starting from Henry VII and Henry VIII.  In any case, the English King seems to have given a veritable benediction to the patients who came to him, very early on.  Therefore, he acts much more like a priest than a king.  Under Saint Louis, the King touches the sick every day, usually after Mass.  Those who arrive too late to benefit from the healing powers can spend the night in the Palace where they are lodged and fed before soliciting the royal touch on the following day.  It is still the same under Philippe le Bel but, under Louis XI, the sick are only presented to the monarch once a week.  All those who want to benefit from the touching grace must submit to an examination permitting to verify that they are really affected by scrofula.

To be continued.