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Did The Royal Touch Heal Scrofula, The King’s Evil Disease ?

The Royal Touch

The Royal Touch ceremony for curing scrofula is reported for the first time during the reign of Louis VI the Fat. This practice, based on the attribution of a healing power to the Christian king, continued until the coronation of Charles X.

Sometimes also called King’s Evil disease, scrofula in medieval language referred to a condition known today as tuberculous adenitis: it is an inflammation of the glands in the neck, which swell and fester horribly; it is generally interpreted as the outward sign of genital tuberculosis.

This disease seemed to be all the more common at the time as many other phenomena were associated with it. Although contagious, it was not fatal, however, the greatest risk to the patient being infertility.

A power conferred on the king by the coronation

People or elite, no one in France, in the 12th century, doubted that the sovereign was able to cure scrofula disease, to the point where the ability is sometimes called the Royal Touch. Yet this belief is recent. It dates from a royal initiative: the transformation of the coronation ceremony, desired by Louis VI to strengthen the charisma of the royal office. Initiative confirmed under his successors, until the ritual was definitively fixed at the time of Charles V the Wise, sacred in 1364.

From 1108, in fact, the prerequisite for any coronation of a king of France is the anointing, that is to say the imposition on the body of the sovereign of an oil whose origin, of after the legend, is divine. Also called holy chrism, it comes from the holy bulb, brought by a dove messenger of the Holy Spirit to Bishop Remi of Reims, who first uses it to baptize Clovis, first king of the Franks. Coming from heaven, it gives the sovereign, still according to legend, the religious character which allows him, like Christ, to perform miracles.

This rite, born in France with the Carolingians, confers divine legitimacy on royalty. It made the King of France a king-priest, ruling the people of God, protecting his churches and, indissolubly, a man raised by God above other mortals, endowed with a radiance and a mysterious power, including that of healing.

"The king touches you, God heals you"

At the start, the ceremonial is simple and unpretentious. Saint Louis thus touches scrofulous people every day, as soon as they come to ask for it, as long as they are waiting for him at the end of mass. From Louis XI, however, at the end of the 15th century, the sick were brought together for a single weekly ceremony. It was also in the 15th century that they were required to undergo a brief preliminary medical examination, in order to rule out those suffering from another disease. The Capetians content themselves with touching the diseased parts with their hands, and then making a sign of the cross on them, or on the patient's forehead: symbolically, the contact of the king's hand transmits the invisible force which lives, and the blessing of the priest-king completes it all.

From the 16th century, the king accompanied the Royal Touch with a stereotypical formula, "The king touches you, God heals you. "Healings, when there are any, obviously appear to us to be natural and of psychological origin: the miracle occurs because the subjects are convinced that it must take place.

Healings orchestrated like shows

In the 17th century, touching scrofula became one of the most solemn rituals of the monarchy. Performed only during major Christian feasts (Easter, Pentecost and especially Christmas), announced by town criers and posters, it most often takes place in the Grande Galerie du Louvre. The sick flocked there, and foreigners rubbed shoulders with the French, to the point that the house of France could exploit the royal miracle to demonstrate its superiority over rival European dynasties.

At Pentecost 1715, very shortly before his death, Louis XIV still touched 1,700 scrofulous people, proof that, whatever his state of health, the king owed himself to that of his subjects, and could not shirk his responsibility.

A less and less effective miracle

However, the ritual of the Royal Touch in order to heal the King’s Evil disease does not have a very long time to live. Louis XV and Louis XVI still see thousands of patients parade, but the belief in miracles resists the changes in mentalities of the pre-revolutionary period. The triumphant rationalism of the Enlightenment alienated the elites from the religious worldview to which this tradition belongs. While the popular classes still revere the miracle-worker king, enlightened minds are incredulous, if not downright ironic. Voltaire thus notes with insolence that Louis XIV was not able to cure one of his mistresses suffering from eruptions, although he "touched her very well"!

The kings themselves seem to no longer believe in their powers. As early as Louis XV, the royal formula was inverted in a meaningful way: it became "(May) God heal you, (because) the king touches you".

And Charles X, in 1824, is content to say to the scrofulous: "I have brought you words of consolation. I sincerely hope that you will recover ... " Finally, later studies showed that, more often than not, when there were healings, the sick had received parallel care. So here are people who, very probably, were miracles… of medicine!

A France-England challenge for miraculous healings

In medieval and modern Europe, only the kings of England shared the privilege of the kings of France, which caused the jealousy and concern of other dynasties. They indeed touched the scrofula from 1276 to 1714. This ritual was in a way the symbolic ground of the long struggle for prestige between the French and English monarchies of the Middle Ages.

The English ritual resembles the French ritual in the 13th century, then it becomes a real religious liturgy, much more solemn and sumptuous, where the king officiates next to his chaplain.