A ward at Hotel-Dieu in Paris.

The rules imposed on the sick who go on a pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint Marcoul are very precise.  Admitted inside the brotherhood in exchange for a small sum of money, they are submitted to diverse food interdictions, must also avoid touching metal objects and wear gloves for this.  It is also necessary to attend the Priory’s church services, for a period of nine days.  This nine-day period is not rigorously respected.  Some do not have the possibility of remaining there for nine days and can have themselves represented by inhabitants of the place, who are thereby constrained to the same interdictions.  Back home, the faithful who had come to solicite the saint must, in the case of a cure, have their curate fill out a certificate which is sent back to the Corbeny Priory.  A good number of these documents have come down to us and bear witness to the immense popularity enjoyed by the cult of this saint in the XVIIth and XVIIIth Centuries.  All of the North of France, Liege country, ducal Lorraine, Alsace, but also Auvergne and the Dauphine sent sick people to Corbeny.

Such success can be explained by the wave of disasters (war, epidemics, famines…) which struck the last centuries of the Middle Ages;  christians, desperate about not finding any human help, turn more to the thaumaturgical saints.  But above all, this success is born of the association which is naturally established between the healing capacities of Saint Marcoul and those of the King of France.  The saint and the King are in fact invested with the same power of healing scrofula.

When and how did this association between the King and Saint Marcoul become established?  The Corbeny monks, anxious to valorise their community even more, answer this question by invoking a visit to Corbeny by Saint Louis [Louis IX] before his Coronation, which does not appear very probable.  On top of this, the custom which takes the king to Saint Marcoul’s tomb in Reims is not yet established under Philippe le Bel [Philippe the Beautiful].  There is some doubt as to the itinerary followed by Louis X le Hutin [Louis the Angry] in 1315 but, in 1328, Philippe VI de Valois takes the same direct route as his uncle Philippe le Bel after the accomplishment of the royal consecration.  On the other hand, his successor Jean le Bon [Jean the Good] goes to Corbeny two days after his Coronation and, after him, no sovereign until Louis XIV seems to have avoided this custom, except for Henri IV, consecrated as we know at Chartres, because of the occupation of Reims by the troops of the Ligue.

The royal visit takes place according to a precise ceremonial.  A procession goes to meet the monarch, who receives the saint’s head from the Prior and carries it to the church, before praying before the shrine.  From the XVth Century, a royal pavillion lodges the illustrious visitor.  In 1654, there is a variation during the consecration of Louis XIV, as Mazarin, worried about the insecurity which reigns in the region, has the Saint Marcoul shrine brought from Reims.  The same thing occurs during the consecrations of Louis XV and Louis XVI.  Prayers before the saint’s relics become an obligation for those who have just received the royal unction.

Curiously, this tradition is perceived as very ancient from the epoch of Charles VII, when it only goes back a century at the most at this time.  The Chronique de la Pucelle reports in fact that

“for all time, the kings of France, after their consecrations, had the custom of going into a priory named Corbigny”.

Saint Marcoul’s renown is such that, in the end, the merit for the king’s miraculous powers is attributed to him.

From 1484, but perhaps before that, Charles VIII touches the scrofulous after having finished his prayers before the saint’s tomb.  The sick are then only six, but they will be eighty in 1498 after Louis XII’s consecration.  From Henri II, foreigners mix with the crowd of patients and, in the XVIIth and XVIIIth Centuries, thousands flock to Corbeny or to the Saint-Remy park in Reims.  From Louis XII, it is accepted that the King can only start to touch scrofula after a detour by Corbeny.  A practice which worries the Reims canons, anxious to reaffirm the decisive importance of the unction in the attribution to the sovereign of his thaumaturgical virtues.  They take upon themselves to remind young Charles VIII of this, telling him that:

“By the virtue of the Holy Unction

Which at Reims receives the noble King of France

God by his hands confers healing

Of scrofula, here is the demonstrance.”

The “demonstrance” is only a sort of living tableau, created on the occasion of the consecration, and representing the famous gift to the kings of France.  However, at the same epoch, the monks of Saint-Riquier decorate their Treasury Room with a fresque which shows the King of France kneeling near Saint Marcoul who is transmitting his healing power to him;  the words are:

“Oh Marcoul, your scrofulous receive from you, oh doctor, a perfect health;  thanks to the gift that you make to him, the king of France, doctor too, enjoys over scrofula an equal power…”

In the XVIIth Century, representations of Louis XIV with the thaumaturgical saint beside him are frequent.  They can be found at Saint-Riquier, at Abbeville and at Tournai.  The saint’s cult meets such success that those who benefit from the royal touch think that a veritable and complete cure will only be possible if they go to Corbeny afterwards.  Such a deviation worries the clergy of Reims, anxious to reserve the healing power for the unction.  However, if the Church is attached to this rite which closely connects it to the French monarchy, it doesn’t want to question the cults of the saints either, because of their success among the People.  The treatise De la beatification des serviteurs de Dieu et de la canonisation des saints by Cardinal Prosper Lambertini, future Pope Benedict XIV, therefore states that

“the kings of France have obtained the privilege of healing scrofula in virtue of a grace which has been given to them, either during the conversion of Clovis, or when Saint Marcoul asked it of God for the kings of France…”.

In fact the idea of the intercession of Saint Marcoul is born at the end of the Middle Ages, when the first royal pilgrimages to Corbeny occur:  these voyages, interpreted as giving thanks, were going to be enriched by a last element.  The myth of the healing of scrofula will accept the fact that the seventh boy born after six other boys in the family would also possess the miraculous gift.  They go to Corbeny to impregnate themselves with the saint’s virtues and receive there a certificate which gives the precision that they have acquired his thaumaturgical powers.  The Carme of Place Maubert in Paris thereby acquires a great reputation for curing scrofulous Parisians.


To be continued.