The King’s Evil

The King’s Evil, more commonly known as scrofula, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a constitutional disease characterized by chronic enlargement and degeneration, of the lymphatic glands.”  Its most prevalent characteristics include swelling of the lymph nodes (around the neck being a common area) and sweats, though it can occasionally be accompanied by other sores and a fever. Today scrofula is known to be an airborne disease that is closely related to tuberculosis and similar mycobacteria. Furthermore treatment generally involves the use of antibiotics for nine to twelve months.[1] In the contemporary age there is a plethora of information surrounding this disease; however, during the late middle ages and the early modern period, the information surrounding the king’s evil quite different.

Although one might suspect it, the king’s evil does not denote an ailment brought upon by a king, rather it alludes to a belief surrounding a cure. From approximately 1000 C.E. to 1700 C.E. the king’s evil, in England and France, was believed to be curable through the touch of a King or Queen. It was through the monarchy’s divine gift that a ritual healing could be performed, relieving the stricken individual. In addition to the ritual healing, the early modern age suggested other potential remedies. Within the early modern recipe book, MS 3712, there are a few references to the disease, with the use of drinks, to cure the sores, being the most prevalent. Though the king or queen’s touch was understood to be a viable cure for the king’s evil, relief was not solely reliant on the will of the monarchy.

The history behind scrofula is not limited to brief mentions in recipe books, as its distinctive cure allowed for some societal influence. As mentioned, the curative properties of the monarch was based on divine right, thus, such ritual healing further established a monarch it his or her position of power. While the king’s evil is not the only disease that was believed to be curable through the touch of a divine ruler, its presence suggests its increased influence. The disease’s power, limited as it was, has been suggested in a few works. For example, Stephen Brogan takes a look at how James I of England utilized the disease during his reign. In his article, “The Royal Touch,” he highlights James’ work to “Protestantize” healing ceremonies surrounding scrofula. In addition to Brogan’s work, Daniel Fusch work “The Discourse of the Unmiraculous Miracle: Touching for the King’s Evil in Stuart England.” looks at James I association with the king’s evil. In it he asserts that James actually held some skepticism towards ritual healing. This, he says, works in contrast to the belief that James I “reinstated and promoted the rite” of ritual healing.[2] As these articles emphasize, the impact that the king’s evil had on early modern society was not limited to the sphere of medicine; rather, its relationship to monarchical ritual healing lent itself to a greater societal influence.

The king’s evil, or scrofula, is a disease that is still seen within the world today. While it is known that the disease is transmitted through the air, and is treatable through the heavy and persistent use of antibiotics, this knowledge is contemporary. During the late Middle Ages and during the early modern period, the king’s evil, and its treatment, had close ties to the monarchy. The use of ritual healing by the king or queen differentiates it from the disease that has come to be known today. Additionally, the king’s evil had some influence. This can be seen within several contemporary pieces, such as the aforementioned Brogan and Fusch articles, which both emphasize the impact the ailment had during the early modern era. Overall, scrofula’s history and scholarship is quite intriguing.

Matthew Turk

Citations

[1] “Scrofula,” Medline Plus, accessed March 24, 2014, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001354.htm

[2] Fusch, Daniel. “The Discourse of the Unmiraculous Miracle: Touching for the King’s Evil in Stuart England.” Appositions: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture 1 (May 2008): 34–39.

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