19 November 2014

Curses and Cures: The King’s Evil: Scrofula and the Gold Angels

Ty cried out as the point of the curette burst open the smaller boil, and the surgeon twisted it in the wound to scrape away the yellow-pink mass inside. My friend shrieked again as the greater boil was lanced, kicking frantically at the hands that restrained him. This time blood as well as lumpy pus came out, pouring over the table’s leather rim.

“Cauter,” snapped the surgeon, and the student holding Ty’s feet let them go. Peter seized them quickly. Taking a rod topped with an eye-shaped lump of iron, the student thrust it into the hottest part of the brazier, then handed it carefully to his master, who laid it three times on Ty’s bleeding wounds. At the first touch Ty gasped and fell silent, his clenched fists flopping open, and the smell of burning flesh leapt up at us like scattering pigeons.
The Bitter Trade

Lymphadenopathy of the neck. Scrofula. A tuberculous swelling of the lymph glands – it’s unpleasant whatever you call it, and it needs to be cut out of your living flesh or treated with antibiotics.

In the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, scrofula was called The King’s Evil. Since the times of Edward the Confessor in the eleventh century, it was believed that the monarch’s touch could cure sufferers, and both English and French kings would hold grand ceremonies in which they touched hundreds of sufferers. This is called thaumaturgy, or miracle-working, and was derived from the divine right of kings.

Later, it was believed that receiving a gold coin called an “angel” (worth 6-10 shillings) would have the same effect, providing the monarch had touched it first. Queen Anne was the last English ruler to carry out this practice (her last “patient” was the infant Samuel Johnson in 1712!), but it carried on in France until the rule of Charles X in the 1820s.

The disease itself produces an unsightly lump, a “cold abscess” on the neck that turns the skin around it a blueish purple. If it has to be excised, there can be damage to the facial nerve, so we can empathise with victims hoping for a miraculous cure from their sovereign.

This is how the ceremony went (and one French king would treat up to 1500 people in a session!):
  The monarch touched (or, alternatively, stroked) the face or neck of the infected person
  The monarch hung the medal around the person's neck.
  Passes from the Gospel of Mark (16: 14–20) and the Gospel of John (1: 1–14) were read.. Mark 16 contains themes that confirm monarchs' immunity to infectious diseases:[. "They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." Mark 16:18
  Prayers were offered. Until the English Reformation, the prayers were addressed not only to God but also to Virgin Mary and the saints.

Charles II revived a declining tradition and was believed to have “treated” over 90,000 sufferers during his quarter-century reign: a very obvious example of his desire to reunite the country after the Civil War.

Scrofula became a rarity in the West as tuberculosis was brought under control. Sadly, the HIV epidemic has brought it back for about 5% of sufferers.

Piers Alexander is the author of The Bitter Trade, a historical novel set during the Glorious Revolution.

The Bitter Trade won the Pen Factor and a Global Ebook Award for modern historical fiction

*** Buy The Bitter Trade for 99c for until 2 December only! ***

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