Posted by: Didapper PJ30 JUN 2010
Skimming through a book of extracts from John Evelyn’s diaries I noted that his entry for 6 July 1660 — 350 years ago — includes the following: “His Majestie began first to Touch for the Evil according to costome: Thus, his Majestie sitting under his State in the Banqueting house: The Chirurgeons cause the sick to be brought or led up to the throne, who kneeling, the King strokes their faces or cheekes with both his hands at once.”
The “evil” Evelyn referred to was the disease scrofula. It was known as the “king’s evil” because of a long-standing belief in England and France that it could be cured by the touch of a monarch, who was believed to have inherited a divine power.
Sovereigns held regular sessions at which hundreds of victims received the royal touch, after which the monarch would present each with a special gold coin, a “touchpiece”.
Following the beheading of Charles I in 1649, there had, of course, been no royal touch during the republican Commonwealth. But the new king had wasted little time in reinstating the practice, since the ceremony watched by Evelyn took place less than 40 days after Charles II regained the crown.
Belief in the royal touch was to continue in England until the death of Queen Anne in 1713. In France, the practice carried on until as late as 1825.
Otherwise known as tuberculous adenitis, scrofula is a bacterial skin infection causing painless swelling of lymph nodes, usually in the neck. Other symptoms include chills, sweats and weight loss and, rarely, fevers and ulcerated sores.
Scrofula is most often caused in adults by Mycobacterium tuberculosis and in children by M scrofulaceum or M avium. Infection is usually acquired by inhaling air contaminated by these organisms.
With antibiotic therapy patients normally make a full recovery, but only after lengthy treatment involving a combination of several antibiotics, such as rifampicin and ethambutol.
The disease is now rare in the developed world.