This is The Siècle, Supplemental 13: Scrofula.
Welcome back. Remember back in Episode 28, when Charles X’s coronation included an odd medieval ritual where the new king laid his hands on people suffering from a skin disease called “scrofula”? Well, it turns out that kings touching for scrofula isn’t just the sideshow it had become by 1825. In fact, the nearly millennia-long history of this ritual explains a lot about the development of European monarchies.
So I’m joined this time by my fellow history podcaster Benjamin Jacobs, who — it turned out — was coincidentally researching scrofula at the same time I was. What follows is our conversation about this oddly fascinating skin disease.
BENJAMIN JACOBS: Greetings! My name is Benjamin Jacobs, notoriously the host of Wittenberg to Westphalia: The Wars of the Reformation. My show aims to examine the early modern period of European history from the lens of religious conflict, and I’m on Episode 83… of the introduction. With me today is David Montgomery, widely renowned as host of The Siècle, a show that covers the years from 1814-1914 in French history, a period of endless fascination. David, welcome.
THE SIÈCLE: Ben, welcome to The Siècle.
JACOBS: Thank you very much, happy to be here. Today we are going to be discussing a topic that is perennial favorite of kids of all ages: the horrible skin condition known as scrofula. David and I happened to be discussing scrofula on a Discord one pleasant fall evening, as you do, and we realized that we were both reading up on it for our various shows. Obviously, this meant that we absolutely had to do a crossover episode to discuss out favorite medieval skin condition specifically and nothing else. So here we are. David, let me kick us off by asking, what is a scrofula?
SIÈCLE: So first of all, scrofula is something you should absolutely not Google. Just take our word on this one. Don’t type scrofula into Google. You will not like that pictures that come back up. Technically, scrofula is the name for a disease caused by the tuberculosis bacteria. It’s disfiguring, not usually fatal. It leads to swollen lymph nodes, skin lesions, affects the neck and the face. It creates a horrifying appearance, and if some sources are to be believed, a terrible smell.
JACOBS: Always great.
SIÈCLE: Yeah. Scrofula is also noted for being a disease that features flare ups and remissions. It’s not constant; it comes and goes. This is important because the symptoms can sometimes just go away for a while. This ties into the most interesting fact about scrofula: For centuries during the Middle Ages, it was widely believed that there was only one surefire cure for scrofula: the touch of a king. Ben, the medieval and early modern period is your area of specialty, how did this connection between the “royal touch” and scrofula get started?
JACOBS: Honestly, we don’t really know. As with many things in this period, it’s sort of obscure, and there’s a bunch of different reasons for that. Let me start us off with the early evidence. That I should say, actually, that the royal touch took place in only two places in Europe. It was specific to France and England. A couple people tried to do it in other places, but it never caught on. So we have this interesting phenomenal of the royal touch only happening in France and England, two monarchies that you will note have a long history together, let’s say, in the Middle Ages –
SIÈCLE: The only two countries that matter, I should point out.
JACOBS: [Laughter] Let’s start out with the basic evidence we have. I’m going to summarize a lot here. Essentially, Philip I, who reigned 1060-1108, is the first king we have on record as doing a healing. Now, a thing about Philip is he was a notoriously cynical king, and sort of a power operator in his period. And he’s described as losing the ability to heal by Guibert, so we can probably assume the practice predated him by some length of time. Basically, Guibert is saying, “Good kings are able to heal people. Philip had it, and then lost it because he was such a jerk.” Now, Philip was only the third king in the Capetian line, so there is no record of the Carolingians, which was the previous dynasty, touching for scrofula. If you go much before that, you don’t really have France at all.
Above: Philip I of France, by an unknown artist. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
SIÈCLE: Or evidence.
JACOBS: Yeah, or written evidence at all. So the practice can probably be dated to some time between 987 and 1060. That said, there is plenty of evidence of folk stories of earlier monarchs doing healings of general kinds. Particularly holy kings in Carolingian and Merovingian dynasties were supposedly able to heal sick people by touching them and doing things. Then you can get back into real folk stories in terms of the people who came in before Christianity who had all sorts of powers and connections to the divine. So particularly after the Merovingians converted to Christianity, you got a lot of these stories just kind of banging around.
Okay, in terms of the English side. The rite in England started after it happened in France. That’s pretty in clear. And so it’s undoubtedly an imitation of the French rite. That said, just because a king says something is real doesn’t mean everyone is going to agree. The first king we have in England for whom we have documentary evidence is Henry II, who ruled 1154-1189, and who listeners to my show will know is a favorite of mine due to his being a terrible slime ball with no morals who killed his way to the throne.
Above: Henry II of England, by an unknown artist. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
SIÈCLE: I’m getting a sense you have a type.
JACOBS: Yeah, I do. [Laughter]
He was also — like I don’t like out and out evil kings; I like people who are just kind of slimy.
SIÈCLE: Slimy, but effective.
JACOBS: Yes. Yes. Definitely that’s the flipside of Henry, he was very effective. He really codified the English common law system as we now understand it, and that is not unrelated to the fact that we was the kind of person who could come into a situation and convince everybody that he was healing them.
So he was basically just the second king of England after its conquest, the second stable one. His older brothers were just involved in a huge scrum, and those were the only kings between him and William the Conqueror. You know, he basically just waltzed into this situation where his father was an avowed usurper and just sort of declared himself king and started healing people, or at least writing about it.
So we can probably date the start of Rite of England to somewhere between the Conquest in 1066 to the death of Henry in 1189. Personally, I can think Henry is exactly the kind of person to just wake up one day and say, “Hey, guys, guess what! I can heal the sick. Anyone who disagrees can come join me in a game of defenestration.”
The fact that he was also a smooth political operator and is described as personally charming while also having a very long reign that he used to consolidate the institutions of the new dynasty, probably helped him take the healing rite from a cynical imitation of the French monarchy to something the people all over Europe generally took seriously.
We’re going to get to the “how” in a little bit, but just really quick there was actually some competition in the scrofula game. The Seventh Sons were individuals who were supposedly the seventh male born to the same mother without interruption from a daughter. The very rare turn of events was associated with magical properties, possibly part of an older folk belief in northern France, but the origins are completely lost to time. Nonetheless, they came to be seen as itinerant healers generally ,and scrofula specialists, in particular.
Right: St. Marculf giving the power of healing to the king of France. Artist unknown. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
This may be evidence of similar beliefs coming to be in parallel. Another example, again in France, was the shrine of Saint Marculf in Corbény, I think I’m pronouncing those words right —
SIÈCLE: No one ever really knows.
JACOBS: Yeah. [Laughter]And that shrine is also renown as a place to go for a cure for scrofula. No one really knows why. The saint’s myth, such as it is, has nothing to do with scrofula, and it’s fairly bare bones to begin with.
Nevertheless, the monarchy tolerated this folk belief and eventually actually incorporated it into their own. So at a certain point, the kings of France, as part of their coronation rituals, started traveling to the shrine and getting the blessing of the saint as part of the various things they did in becoming kings.
So, how did this whole thing start, based on what we know?
There’s more than just cynical self-interest going on here. The power of the King’s Touch to cure scrofula seems to have been sincerely believed by vast numbers of people, both commoners and elites. Things that we need to mention here are human psychology, notably the placebo effect and what it has to do with medicine. Needless to say, the placebo effect is real. It can be very strong. If you believe something is true, there is a significant proportion of the time that it actually will improve the situation. Debate continues as to why.
SIÈCLE: I keep strongly believing that my podcast is good. Hopefully that will help.
JACOBS: [Laughter] There you go!
This just gets to the way that people formed beliefs in general. Medieval people weren’t dumb. I think that is the biggest thing to say.
But the most basic thing that led people to have this belief is that if you’re going into a situation where you think someone is going to be able to heal you, and you have a disease that in reality just comes and goes and you get what seems like a magical cure and then it goes away, you’re going to attribute that to whatever happened whether there’s a causal effect or not. This is a big problem in general with medicine and determining how things happen, and it’s why we don’t base modern medicine on anecdote and single points of data. We use these double blind studies with control groups and all that stuff.
It’s very easy for someone to be confused in situations like this, and it’s behind a whole lot of folk medical beliefs, some of which are useful and some of which aren’t. In this case, I think we can all agree here that “aren’t” is more of the correct situation according to modern medicine.
SIÈCLE: Well, let’s reserve judgement until the end of the episode. We don’t want people just leaving now, Ben.
JACOBS: [Laughter] Oh shoot. Sorry. Spoilers!
SIÈCLE: Keep them guessing.
JACOBS: That said, it’s easy to see how this could happen. What’s interesting to examine for us in this episode is how that played into concepts of medieval kingship, how that played into wider ideologies at the time, and how people who were in charge used mixtures of their own genuinely held beliefs, the genuinely held beliefs of the populace at large, and the power of medieval propaganda, I guess, to change things.
And I just think it’s worth saying the medieval kings had access a lot of people who could write things that were then disseminated throughout Europe and so even though people might not have had personal experience with the King of France because they lived in Spain or Germany or whatever, they would hear from these supposedly reputable sources about healings by the French and English kings.
SIÈCLE: That’s right, Ben. I encountered in my research, I think a 16th century Spaniard, who was writing about the stories he heard of French kings touching for scrofula at their coronations. It was all a little weird to him. He was sort of credulous and sort of skeptical. He certainly believed it was possible, but he hadn’t seen anyone for sure get healed. But the fact someone might have been healed was definitely something that was possible.1
JACOBS: On that note, in your most recent episode, you talked about how belief in scrofula and the King’s Touch was rooted in broader beliefs of what it meant to be king. Can you tell us a little more about that?
SIÈCLE: Sure. So rulers across history have often portrayed themselves and partly or wholly divine. From the ancient period up until the beginnings of the modern period. The Middle Ages were no exception. Back in the 11th century, there was a fairly widespread conception that a king was a person endowed with at least some sort of spiritual quality.
There was a Norman author writing around the 1100 who argued that a king was “a twin person.” Quote, “The power of the king is the power of God. This power, namely God’s by nature, and the king’s by grace. Hence, the king too is God and Christ, but by grace. And whatsoever he does, he does not simply as a man, but as one who has become God and Christ.” So you’ve got this belief, or at least this propaganda that some people close to kings are trying to spread, which I’m sure was shared in some degree by a lot of people, that there is some sort of mystical, spiritual, divine quality to kings.
I should note that this argument in the 11th century, around the year 1100, is exactly the time that you mentioned that these first occurrences of touching for scrofula by kings were starting to appear. I’m not sure if that’s a coincidence. Maybe it is. [Laughter] It shows how this anonymous Norman author attributed this transformation to a side effect of the king’s anointment or consecration. It wasn’t just holding political power that did it. It was the divine coronation, consecration, that gave the king this ability, this God-like power.
So that was sort of the early medieval period. But by the time you get to the early modern period, this argument about the divine aspect of kingship has solidified, at least in England and France, into this idea of “the king’s two bodies.” There’s a famous book by Ernst Kantorowicz by that name that sort of lays this out, the political theology of the medieval period.
Right: Ernst Kantorowicz, 1921, by Franz Grainer. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The basic idea is that the king’s physical body is mortal; it can die. Obviously, everyone has seen kings die. No one would argue that kings are actually immortal. But the key part is that the king has a second, spiritual, body that’s immortal. And that spiritual body simply passed on to the next king’s mortal body when the prior king died. So this idea of the king’s two bodies reinforced the idea that there is something mystical or spiritual about kings. And if you buy that, that there is something mystical or spiritual, the idea that the king had a healing hand is pretty plausible. That said, Ben, you were talking about how this general idea of kings having divine powers pretty quickly became surrounded by a lot of bureaucracy.
JACOBS: Of course! Now anytime you have any kind of act that is deriving power, of course the bureaucracy gets involved, especially in this area and time.
So in both England and France, rituals grew up around the King’s Touch that became elaborate. Initially, it was all on a first come, first serve basis. Literary evidence describes people taking grand opportunities to ask for the king for the Touch, up to and including when the king passed them on the road. Eventually, as the word of the Touch spread far and wide, and as the governments of these insipient monarchies became more formal, this became inconvenient.
At the same time, the stories of the King’s Touch became an important part in the discussions between monarchs and the Church about who held legitimacy. This whole thing about the king having spiritual power and immortal significance was sort of important in debates between kings and the papacy. So this became very important for the monarchy’s justification for its own existence, arguments about which monarchs were better than other monarchs, and also internal political arguments between the different forces that ruled things in Europe.
Obviously, if it was this important, this needed to be regulated and documented and everything. That said, this is also a time period when administrations are pretty scanty, but also when rules of hospitality were taken very seriously. Which is to say, if someone comes and knocks on your door and asks you for help, in this time period, you’re supposed to, you know –
SIÈCLE: Murder them all in their beds after getting them drunk?
JACOBS: [Laughter] As the host of the house there’s a code of hospitality you’re supposed to follow, and of course writ large the king is the host of a very large house called a palace and if people rock up and start knocking on his door, there’s certain codes he’s supposed to follow.
And then, one final thing to say, as time went on and when touching for scrofula was seen as the thing, it was important for the kings to be able to hand wave away times when the healing didn’t work. So it became very important to be very clear that it was scrofula the king healed, just scrofula.
So, when pilgrims arrived to be helped by the king, they were examined by a court doctor, and if indeed they were found to have scrofula, just scrofula and not anything else, they would be put up by the court until the next major public healing event. These healing events would happen at major high holiday services and things like that, you know, Easter, Christmas, those kinds of things. Four to six times a year, depending on which reign you were talking about and when and where and which monarch you were talking to.
In the meantime, they would be put up in the palace because with the vagaries of travel in the Middle Ages, you never knew when you would going to show up in relation to these big events. So they would be put up in a clean room and given hot meals, which of course, had no impact at all on the king’s ability to heal scrofula. Giving starving peasants hot meals, you know.
Anyway, the rituals, as you would expect, developed to make the event of being touched by the king to seem more potent. This is probably as much a thing that happened from the king’s side, just sort of involuntarily. Like if you just go up to someone and you’re told you’re supposed to be healing them by touching them, by your dad or whatever, you can’t just go up to them and poke them in the face. At a basic level, you have to do something religiousy.
So what they would do is the kings in England would touch the person’s forehead, shoulders, and chest, basically making a big sign of the cross over the person. In France, they would do the sign of the cross over each visible sore and then touch them, which is gross. Various prayers were then said, or prayer-like things, and this would always happen within the context of a religious service. By the High Middle Ages, this would usually happen right after a Mass when the king was particularly spiritually pure.
Upon being helped, in England, all comers, everyone who came to see the king, got a fixed payment from the king as alms. They were not like eye-wateringly large sums, but they were like a good sum of money like someone giving you a hundred bucks or something. You’re not going to say no.
In France, those who traveled a particularly long distance would be given a monetary gift to help them get home. Over time, the coins provided by the kings in England were seen as relics in themselves, that had their own healing properties. Eventually special coins came to be minted for this purpose. Wearing the coin as a medallion for life was seen as a continuation of the rite, and would help keep scrofula at by.
Just as a side note, in England, starting with King John — another slime ball, but not effective — they would start blessing rings on Easter Sunday and provide them as cures for epilepsy, which people said worked. I guess.
SIÈCLE: Kingship, not just scrofula.
JACOBS: Not just scrofula. Also epilepsy. Two things that go away on their own and can’t be confused for each other, and can’t easily can be confused for other things. [Laughter] Ultimately, this was probably an outgrowth of the fact that people had started a trade in the medallions that had been minted and handed out.
SIÈCLE: Everyone loves a relic.
JACOBS: Yeah, everyone likes a relic. And the king suddenly had this way to be handing out benefits to people who were coming to see them. They actually were selling the rings themselves out on the open market.
Now as it happens these provisions of alms constitute out main evidence for how popular these rites were. And the records kind of work on opposite valences. In France, they didn’t give everyone alms, but they did record when they gave people money who had traveled a very large distance and where they came from. As a result, we know how far people traveled to get to France from all over Europe. In particular, we know Spanish travelers are well represented, and there’s also Italians and Germans and people from farther afield.
In England, by contrast, as I said, everyone was given a fixed sum, and so we can track the actual numbers of people being touched, in the reigns of Edward I, II, and III, in particular. Because by simply taking the line item in the king’s budget that says how many coins were given out to people as alms while being touched, that’s the number of people that showed up. That’s a nice, little piece of data. Unfortunately, after the reign of King Edward III, they changed their accounting system and summed that figure with all the other alms they were giving out that year. So we lost of source of data, and it’s very frustrating.
SIÈCLE: The very worst thing to happen in the Middle Ages.
JACOBS: Yeah, terrible, terrible. This is a lesson to everybody out there who is in accounting: Be careful what you change. Never change anything,
In any case, these payments give us our best evidence on the scale of the healings as records were kept by the king’s bureaucrats of these expenses at various times. These records show an average of 500 healings per year across these three kings’ reigns, but there is some wide variation. Edward I was very popular and blessed 1,736 people in one particularly good year. In one particularly bad year, Edward III only blessed 136 people, but at that time he was busy invading France and may done unrecorded healings while in Normandy away from his accountants. We can say that Edward II, who was not particularly popular, he didn’t go on any real adventures and we see some real fluctuations in his healing rates based on how his reign was going.
SIÈCLE: The idea being, more people would come get healed by him when he was popular and things were going well?
JACOBS: Yes. In general, what we can say is, given that not a lot of people had the money for travel and that scrofula isn’t super common anyway, we can say that the healings were pretty popular in the High Middle Ages and the idea that they were effective definitely traveled around Europe. The reputation of the king had some impact on the people who wanted to be healed by him, but so did things like the king’s travel itinerary.
All in all, this was a popular practice that had real belief amongst the population of Europe in general, not just in France and England, although particularly in France and England.
David, how did this situation come to an end in the Early Modern Period if it was so popular in the Middle Ages.
SIÈCLE: It’s a complex situation. There were intellectual challenges to this divine model of kingship that also go back to the Middle Ages. Dante in the 14th century had put forth a more humanistic model of kingship, which in certain ways undermined this divine model that was the intellectual underpinning for the King’s Touch.
The Reformation didn’t end the King’s Touch. Protestant rulers of England kept touching for scrofula. But it did indirectly undermine it. French and Spanish Catholic writers suggested that the heretical English kings had lost their ability to touch for scrofula. Standard propaganda against you evil enemy. But one scholar2 notes that once you accept the idea that some touching for scrofula is fake, it’s not the big of a leap to the idea that maybe all of it is. Another sort of hole in the wall there.
The next big thing that happened in England was a revolution. Catholic King James II was thrown into exile and he was replaced by William of Orange, who was Dutch. In the Netherlands, they didn’t touch for scrofula. He came in and he had no interest in taking up this weird English tradition. He thought it was superstition and didn’t bother doing it. It came back a little bit briefly under Queen Anne in the early 1700s. It seems like many people still believed in it. People still showed up for Queen Anne even after this had stopped for a while. But then they brought in some German kings, the Georges from Hanover, and they just sort of stopped doing it. Again, because touching for scrofula just was not a huge thing in Germany.
It is interesting to note, as an aside, that James and his heirs, after being driven into exile, continued to touch for scrofula from their exile in France and other places in Europe long after the kings in England itself had stopped doing it.
JACOBS: Yeah, and I actually read a really interesting thing, that people who were loyal supporters of the Hanoverians would sometimes just get scrofula and they’d secretly nip over to the Netherlands and get touched for scrofula on down low. People still really believed this stuff.[Laughter]
SIÈCLE: You politically support the House of Hanover, but you’ll do what it takes to get your cure. [Laughter]
French kings continued to touch for scrofula, especially as part of the coronation. I don’t know if it become only the coronations with 18th century French kings, but that’s certainly the emphasis. The big period of touch for scrofula was when a new king was crowned. We know that at his coronation in 1774, King Louis XVI touched some 1,200 sufferers who all showed up.
But at the same time over the course of the 18th century in France, you had the Enlightenment. This spread of new ideas, emphasis on rationality as opposed to superstition, attacks on the church. This was also chipping away at the intellectual underpinnings of touching for scrofula. And after that had been slowly building for a long time, then 1789 comes along with a little thing we like to call the French Revolution.
Louis XVI gets his head chopped off. And it’s really important here, this isn’t just the execution of the king’s physical body. But in a really important sort of philosophical and theological sense, this is an execution of the king’s spiritual body. If you read what French royalists and committed Catholics wrote about this execution, about Louis XVI, about monarchy in the decades that followed the French Revolution, there’s this real sense this wasn’t just a political crime where they executed a leader, a valid leader. But this was sin against God. There had been God’s anointed leader on Earth who had been killed, and the country needed to repent, to atone.
The Revolution had worked to transfer this idea of sacredness from the king’s divine body, the person of the king, to the secular idea of the nation. Napoleon, of course, eventually crowned himself as emperor, but this was a very different king of monarchy that he brought in — much more modern, influenced by Enlightenment ideas. Napoleon didn’t touch for scrofula at his coronation. He was always much more about the idea of the nation. Of course, he didn’t live and reign long enough to have a chance to introduce this idea even if he’d wanted to. 1814 comes around, and Napoleon is thrown into exile. King Louis XVIII, younger brother of Louis XVI, comes back and is brought on the throne. Learn all about that on The Siècle.
Louis XVIII never got around to having a formal coronation ceremony. First, he was starting to plan it, but then Napoleon came back for the Hundred Days and that threw everything up in the air. He started planning it again, and then one of his nephews got assassinated and then that threw everything up. By the point he was incredibly overweight and [in] ill health and couldn’t walk, and there was a sense he just wasn’t up to a big ceremony anymore. So he died in 1824 never having bothered to be crowned and therefore never touched for scrofula. In 1825, Louis’ brother Charles had his coronation. He became king in 1824 and had a coronation ceremony the next year. And Charles did touch for scrofula. Charles was a very traditional, very religious king. [He] wanted to bring back as much as the old ancien régime ritual, and tradition as he could.
Left: King Charles X of France in coronation robes, by Henry Bone after François Gérard, 1829. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
It’s worth noting that our sources are pretty clear, that even Charles who wanted to bring back as many of these traditions as he could, apparently had some qualms about touching for scrofula. He was going back and forth until the last minute. Like “Do I do it, do I not do it?” People had showed up, they were queuing up outside to get touched for scrofula. At one point, he may have sent instructions to send them home with some money and then changed his mind and said “Bring them in. Bring them in.” We do know that there were about 120 people ultimately that he touched. By that time the ritual was he made the sign of the cross on their forehead and said, “God cure you. The king touches you.” At some point along the line, the king had stopped touching the sores, which I imagine was an improvement for everyone.
The 120 people that Charles touched at his 1825 coronation, that was a tenth the number his brother had, which probably reflects a lot of the changes in the popular understanding. That may have been dropped by some of the flip flopping and the order for people to go home and all that. Who knows how many would have actually showed up? And, of course, the money was till being paid, which was an encouragement. But it’s noteworthy that this number is a lot smaller, reflecting some of these changes in the beliefs about kingship and all that. It’s also really interesting that Charles X in May of 1825 was the very last European monarch to ever touch for scrofula. This was it, the end of the ritual.
JACOBS: Of course, in the 1940s, we invented penicillin, and antibiotics in general became available.
JACOBS: [Laughter] Allegedly. And now, if you get scrofula, in most cases, I think it’s like six months? So it’s not like a little thing to get rid of scrofula even today, but.
SIÈCLE: Tuburculosis is rough for a bacteria.
JACOBS: It is. But, of course, antibiotics will usually get rid of it, and then there’s surgery if it doesn’t.
SIÈCLE: So, Ben, what’s your take on the King’s Evil, and touching for scrofula?
JACOBS: It’s one of these things where if you learn about just this thing, you will understand European monarchy a lot better than you did before. That’s sort of why Marc Bloch talked about it. And apologies to French speakers, I’m never going to get this name right. I’ve been told nine different versions of the pronunciation of Marc Bloch, and I’m just going to keep saying it that way at this point.
SIÈCLE: Close enough.
JACOBS: Listeners of my show will know Marc Bloch was a very prominent historian, more so after his death to a certain extent. He was a young gun historian in France, which is a thing you can only say to describe historians when they’re from France. You’d never have a young gun historian from anywhere else. But he was key in establishing the *Annales** school, which we would call Structuralism in the United States. Long story short, he died fighting the Nazis, and that sort of contributed materially to his legend. But he was also a great historian before that. He was sort of between big projects, and sort of wanted a little amuse-bouche. So he started writing a little paper on scrofula, which was something no one else took seriously at the time.
Left: Marc Bloch, unknown artist. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
And as sort of happens with historians, this little paper turned into one of his most famous books. Because, it turned out, that no one else — it was a silly tradition, this ridiculous thing people did in the old times. But just in this episode, we’ve touched on some of the key rationales for the divine right of kings, some of the major ceremonies that underpinned how they were received by the commoners and everything. If you dig into this a little more, and there’s some stuff here we didn’t quite get a chance to get into, but for my next season talking about the Investiture Controversy, the controversy between the papacy and the monarchs of Europe, having this thing where the kings are considered divine in their own right because of their anointment with holy oil, that gets important. This is one of those weird little things. It’s just this little, little topic, this weird little ritual they did for a good long time, but actually by studying it and really coming to understand it you come to understand an awful lot about the society in which it took place.
SIÈCLE: One thing I’ve been wondering listening to your explanation is, to what degree do you think the kings believed in their own power here? You’ve talked about there may have been cynicism, this was a way they could use to gain power. But also, it’s dangerous to assume that people in past periods didn’t believe what they said they believed.
JACOBS: Yeah. I think it really depends on the person, and we’ll never know for sure. Ii would say, it’s interesting that the character of the first two kings where we have evidence for it, it’s very clear that they were cynical power players. Philip I and Henry II were not under a lot of illusions about how human nature worked. [Laughter] That said, it’s almost hard for me to believe that they could have come up with something so preposterous on their own. There had to have been some sort of seed there that they built upon. And if there was a seed that existed before, it tends to make me thing they had to have believed in it at a little bit at some level.
SIÈCLE: Or at least who had advisers who believed in it or who were making the case to them.
JACOBS: With Philip in particular… one or two of his predecessors were considered particularly holy kings, and were renowned for healing people. I think it was his father. Whether Philip actually believed it is almost immaterial. People definitely believed his father could heal people. It wasn’t so structured and it wasn’t just scrofula. It was like he was a particularly holy man who touched a guy on the side of the road and the guy started dancing a jig or something along those lines. But, you know, there was this previously existing thing, and Philip, whether or not he believed it, he worked very hard to claim that it was inheritable. And then once he started doing it, Henry II wasn’t that much later. And it’s much easier copying that sort of thing when you’re not too long after the first person tried to pull this. It was like, “if he’s doing it, I can do it too.” Henry seems much more of a blatant, “I’m doing it and I dare someone to come over here and tell me I’m wrong.”
One of the interesting things is we don’t know if anyone in his court or anyone in England even actually believed him. For all we know, they just sent people out to drag lepers off the street and he touched them and then just wrote about how great it was. Because Henry was notorious for having a bunch of scribes in his pocket.
King Henri IV of France touches the head of a kneeling man for scrofula, circa 1589-1610. Unknown artist. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
SIÈCLE: With Charles X, I don’t know the degree to which he actually believed he could cure scrofula, but he certainly knew the people believed he could and that it was important to them that they get this touch from the king. That was important to Charles. He might have seen this as just a responsibility that he had. A duty. He also took this seriously. He believed he was God’s chosen ruler. So it’s hard to tell how actually serious he believed it and how much it was he knew others believed it and didn’t want to let them down.
JACOBS: I know it’s pretty clear to me that most of the medieval kings believed it, certainly once you get into the Edwards and everything. It’s a big part of the whole thing. They’ve got no reason — at that point they have a century between them and when this whole thing started, and at that point its just common wisdom and everyone knows it works.
SIÈCLE: Obviously, we can talk for another hour about this question I’m about to ask you, but I encourage you to keep this brief for our listeners’ sake for no one else. But what about other countries like Germany and Italy and Spain? Were there these similar conceptions of the divineness of kings and was royal to healing there even if scrofula itself was not?
JACOBS: There were a couple attempts made in Germany by one of two of the princes or one of two of the Holy Roman Emperors to try and get a scrofula healing thing going — and it did not take. In Spain too, there was at least one king, at least, who tried to do a healing thing. That said, it never really took off in those places in the same way it did in France and England. But that isn’t to say there wasn’t a feeling that there was a divine right of kings. There very much was. It just manifested in different ways.
…People were just like my king is Pedro el Cruel and he’s not one of the ones who can heal people. That doesn’t mean he’s a bad king. He’s my king. But if I want to go get cured for scrofula, I need to just pop over to France. That’s where you get scrofula cured. It’s like a pharmacy that has some different stuff in it over in France. People were just like, “That’s a unique part of their bloodline. It’s just what it does.”
I will say that when the French kings tried to take over Italy they ran into some serious pushback. And that was probably one of the places where they first started to get the pushback.
SIÈCLE: “What are you trying to do? You want to touch me?”
Everyone was just like, “Yeahhhh, no. That doesn’t sound like it makes sense at all.” It’s sort of a mixed bag because you’ve got some people who definitely traveled from Italy to France to get healed. But at the same time when these foreign occupier kings rocked with an army with artillery for the time and started saying all these scrofula people should line up to get healed, there was a lot of silence, I guess. There was a lot of incredulity amongst the educated classes in Italy.
SIÈCLE: I find that interesting. Italy, in particular, because medieval Italy had both longstanding traditions of self-rule, republican rule in a lot of cities and also, of course, the very real presence of the Pope who claimed to be the conduit for God on Earth. I have to imagine one or both of those may have played a role in the very different reception of the Italians to this idea of royal healing compared to the French or the English.
JACOBS: Along with just the straight up hostility to a foreign occupier. [Laughter]
SIÈCLE: Yeah, sure. And as we’ve seen, it’s much easier to dismiss scrofula [healing] happening somewhere else than back home.
JACOBS: I would even say it’s much easier to accept those French kings over there can cure scrofula, but when those French kings rock over here with their army and start telling us all what to do and make extravagant claims about healing people by touching them, it’s a lot easier to find your skepticism when you’re already loading your gun. That’s a particularly interesting case, and it led to a lot of the, the first round of intellectual arguments against the King’s Touch with Dante and that generation. Because that’s around when it was happening, a little after.
SIÈCLE: Well, Ben, I can’t say it’s been a pleasant topic, but it’s been a very pleasant discussion.
JACOBS: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
SIÈCLE: Thank you so much for welcoming onto your show and for coming onto The Siècle. Ben, why don’t you tell my listeners a little about your show for those who haven’t checked it out, and I’ll tell your listeners about The Siècle.
JACOBS: Sounds great. As I sort of said at the top, the goal of my show is to talk about the Early Modern period from the standpoint of the Wars of Religion that took place between the nailing of the 95 Theses on church door at Wittenberg and ended with the end of the Thirty Years’ War with the Treaty of Westphalia. That said, I’m a very strong believer in context, and I am on my sixth year, seventh year of background talking about the Middle Ages and European society in general. I’m just about to start, as I think I mentioned, I’m about to get into the Investiture Controversy, which is really, it’s the beginning of a three or four downhill run into the Wars of the Reformation. You can see that light at the end of the tunnel now. That’s “Wittenberg to Westphalia: The Wars of the Reformation.”
SIÈCLE: The Siècle is my podcast. It covers French history from 1814 to 1914, at least theoretically. I’m a couple years in and I’ve made it all the way to 1825. So we’re in similar boats here. You may notice 1814 sort of picks up right after the part of this history that most people know something about: the French Revolution and Napoleon. I made a very conscious decision to jump right in the middle of the action rather than getting bogged down in prologue. It’s very different approach for our shows there. [Laughter] This hundred year period I’m covering — “Siècle” is French for “century” — is fascinating because you start off at the tail end of the Early Modern period with France still grappling with the legacies from the ancien régime, the changes from the Revolution, and by the time you get to the end of it with World War I, you’re essentially fully modern: mechanized, industrialized, completely transformed. It’s fascinating to watch modernity be born over the course of this century. I hope to take my listeners on that tour through this birth of modernity through the lens of France, one of the great countries in the world.
JACOBS: I will say that some of my favorite stories from French history happen in that century, so I’ve been enjoying it, and I’m looking forward to the rest.
SIÈCLE: Well, thank you very much, Ben. Thank you to all our listeners for joining us. Where can people find your show?
JACOBS: The website is wittenbergtowestphaliapodcast.weebly.com, but you can just looking me up on any podcatcher, they all have me. Google “Wittenberg to Westphalia: Wars of the Reformation” and you’ll find something.
SIÈCLE: The Siècle is at thesiecle.com. That’s t-h-e-s-i-e-c-l-e — those French words can be tricky to spell. I’m also available on all the podcasting networks. If you can’t find me just go to the website and find links to your podcaster of choice.
JACOBS: Awesome. Thanks very much.
SIÈCLE: Thank you.
My thanks to Ben for joining me here — and also my apologies to him for inflicting my patented scheduling delays on his release schedule.
I’d also like to thank Kevin Moore for transcribing this episode. You can read his transcript online at thesiecle.com/supplemental13. Kevin is the host of the Can’t Make This Up history podcast, where he interviews experts about “crazy and unbelievable history.” While I’m at it, last time I neglected to thank historian Catherine Phipps for transcribing Supplemental 12: Second Sons. Thank you Catherine!
In the meantime, I’m nearly done with the next episode of The Siècle, a scripted look at a critical group of thinkers who have been enmeshed in the entire Bourbon Restoration. Join me next time for Episode 29: The Doctrinaires.
The Spanish theologian Michael Servetus wrote: “Two memorable things are related of the kings of France: first, that there is in the church at [Reims] a vase of [consecrated oil] which remains ever full, sent down from heaven for the coronation, and used for the anointing of all the kings; secondly, that the king, by the laying on of hands alone, cures the scrofula. I have seen with my own eyes this king touching several sufferers from this affection. If they were really restored to health — well, that is something I did not see.” ↩
Marc Bloch, The Royal Touch: Sacred Monarchy and Scrofula in England and France, translated by J.E. Anderson (Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2020), 217-8. ↩