The supernatural power of the kings comes, without any doubt, from superstitions anterior to christianisation, from those obscure times when king-priests favourised the maintaining of the order of the world through their magical power. Unconscious survivors of the original myths buried in the dust of time, belief in the healing powers of kings must be placed in the context of the mythical abundance which characterizes distant epochs, an abundance from which many leftovers came down to us, in the form of religious or folkloric traditions, until the last centuries of the Age of the Kings [Ancien Regime] in France. This includes the beliefs relating to the healing powers of Saint Marcoul, which were to be largely confounded with the tradition of the royal touching of scrofula.
If we believe the story told about him by the monks from the Nant Monastery – in the Coutances Diocese – at the beginning of Carolingian times, Marcoul was born in Bayeux in the VIth Century and was a contemporary of King Childebert I and of Bishop Saint-Lo. The Norman invasions forced the Nant monks to flee, taking their relics with them. They came to seek protection from Charles the Simple and he installed them North of the Aisne, in a domain called Corbeny where, in February 906, is founded a monastery destined to shelter the relics of the saint which will never be brought back to the Cotentin. The last Carolingians leagued this pious foundation to the Saint-Remi Monastery of Reims, which made it a Priory, and it conserved this status until the Revolution. The First World War, well-known for the devastation caused in this region of the sadly renowned Chemin des Dames, destroys the last ruins of the building which still existed at the beginning of the XXth Century.
Saint Marcoul was a thaumaturgical saint, like a lot of similar saints, but it seems that he did not originally have any particular “speciality”. His miraculous powers manifested themselves in the XIIth Century. The Prior of Corbeny noticed that the village had suffered a series of catastrophes and was worried about the lack of earnings for his community caused by the financial distress of his tenants. He then decided to send his monks to accomplish a “relic tour”. Raising the patron saint’s shrine onto their robust shoulders, the monks travel through Champagne and Picardie where, more or less everywhere, the relics accomplish numerous miracles. The story which reports this curious voyage does not however make the slightest mention of the healing of scrofula.
In the XIIIth Century, a great stained-glass window in the Coutances Cathedral represents Saint Marcoul treating a hunter whose insolence toward him had been punished by a fall from horseback. There is still no mention of scrofula on this representation. At the end of the XIIIth Century, the text of a sermon reveals to us however that
“this saint received from Heaven such grace, for the healing of this illness known as the King’s Evil, that one sees flocking to him, a crowd of sick people coming also from faraway, barbaric countries and from neighbouring nations”.
Why this new specialisation of the saint? It could be thought that the thaumaturge’s name alone predisposes him to act against scrofula. It includes mar, a mediaeval adverb which evokes ill, or evil, and coul, that simple phonetics could assimilate to the neck [cou in modern French; col in Old French], the whole evoking the “ill [or evil] of the neck” characteristic of scrofula. In the same way, Saint Clair was invested with particular powers for treating affections of sight [clair meaning “clear” (also “light” in connection with colours)]
From the XIVth Century, the saint, who until then had only had a regional reputation, in his Normandie of origin and on the banks of the Aisne, acquires much greater notoriety from the contact with Champagne and Picardie. It takes on such a dimension that Notre-Dame Church in Mantes claims to possess his true relics, along with those of his two companions, Cariulphe and Domard, after the discovery of a burial containing three skeletons. This discovery having occurred on the road leading to Rouen, it is possible to imagine that the monks from Nant fleeing “the fury of the Normans” had abandoned their precious burden catastrophically in this place. This will be the origin of a dispute which will continue until the XVIIth Century. The monks of Corbeny recall the conditions of the foundation of their Priory under Charles the Simple and the miraculous apparition in the sky, during a procession with the saint’s shrine, of three crowns seen by more than six thousand of the faithful. They reject without discussion the pretensions of the Mantais, but the remains placed in the collegial church of their town nonetheless have the reputation for having several times cured scrofulous people.
Other sanctuaries claimed to possess relics of the saint. Some are to be found in Carentoir in the Diocese of Vannes, at Moutiers-en-Retz in that of Nantes, at Saint-Pierre-de-Saumur, at the Abbey of Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, at Mondidier, at Abbeville, at Valenciennes in Argonne, at Dinant, at Naumur, in numerous Wallon or Brabancon villages, at Cologne, at Tournai, at Angers, at Saint-Riquier-en-Ponthieu, at Archelange in Franche-Comte, at Notre-Dame de Liesse… Some of the saint’s precious remains, given by Queen Anna of Austria, arrive in 1666 at the home of the Carmes of Place Maubert in Paris. Many brotherhoods are formed in his name at Amiens, at Soissons, at Brussels… But the glory of the thaumaturgical Corbeny saint is essentially connected to the pilgrimage to his tomb from the XVth Century. Haberdashers and travelling salesmen, of whom he is the patron saint, sell medals and images of Saint Marcoul during their travels, as well as sandstone bottles containing water sanctified by the immersion of one of his relics. This water is applied to the sick parts of the body, but some of the faithful think that it is better to drink it to accelerate the cure.
To be continued.