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The great leveller: humanity's struggle against infectious disease

Scrofula

Opening showing a portrait of the author and a frontispiece showing King Charles II healing subjects knelt before him, with a large group of people gathered aroundPortrait of the author within a decorative border, and a frontispiece entitled: The Royal gift of healingScrofula was defined as such before the modern classification of diseases came into being. It was an infection of the lymph glands surrounding the neck, although adjacent parts of the body could also be affected. In many cases, the symptoms of this disease would today be classified as tubercular, though they could possibly have indicated other diseases, including cancers.

This condition assumed a political and even semi-religious significance when it was deemed curable by the touch of a king. This continuous tradition arose in England and France at least as far back as the 13th century because the medieval Church contested monarchs’ claims to possessing quasi-sacred status.

The royal touch, as shown in the image here, was a vivid demonstration of the monarch’s godliness. During the 17th century, with the Stuarts’ proclaimed belief in the divine right of kings, such ceremonies increased in number in England, reaching a peak of 90,000 over the period of King Charles II’s reign. After the expiry of the Stuart dynasty in 1714, the official king’s touch ceased, although the exiled Stuarts still practised it.

In the medieval and early modern world, when magical healing and invocations were an accepted part of everyday life at all levels of society, and when extreme scepticism concerning orthodox medical treatments was equally widespread, the phenomenon of the king’s touch is entirely comprehensible. As tuberculosis is often characterised by long periods of remission, people could easily be persuaded that they had been ‘cured’ by royal intervention. The English and French ceremonials had a pronounced religious character.  According to the historian Keith Thomas:

At a special religious service conducted by leading Anglican clergy the monarch laid his hands upon each member of the long queue of sufferers. The patients approached the monarch one by one and knelt before the monarch, who lightly touched them on the face, while a chaplain read the verse from St. Mark: ‘They shall lay hands on the sick and they recover.’ They then retired and came forward again so that the king might hang round their necks a gold coin strung from a white silk ribbon.

Adenochoiradelogia, the best surviving account of this ceremony, was written by a professed royalist, the St Thomas’s surgeon John Browne, who, as King Charles II’s surgeon-in-ordinary, had witnessed the ritual. Browne declares candidly that he regards the king’s touch as proof of the monarch’s divine character, and also details examples of cures effected by the blood of the executed King Charles I.

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