From the thirteenth to the eighteenth century, English kings and queens touched the sores of people suffering from scrofula. Thousands of people made long journeys to be healed by the royal hands, a ‘channel for God’s grace’ (p. 143), during a ritual performed in imitation of Christ. Sovereigns, confessions, rituals and ceremonies would change throughout the Middle Ages and the early modern period, but the royal touch survived, despite many political and religious changes. Stephen Brogan offers a detailed examination of this particularly enduring tradition, from the French medieval origin until the Enlightenment, when royal therapeutics disappeared, mainly because the lack of a British heir stopped the lineage of thaumaturgic kings. The Royal Touch examines the genesis and development of the rituals surrounding the royal touch in medieval and early modern England. Using a chronological approach, Brogan first traces the French medieval origins—for which he mainly uses secondary literature—before further elaborating on the English context—in which he studies a rich documentation of primary sources to map practices and changes through time. Brogan convincingly demonstrates that the royal touch was central not only to sacral monarchy, but to the understanding of English pre-modern culture and society. The central thesis of the book is that the extraordinary durability of royal thaumaturgy was due to the intersection between politics, religion and medicine. First, the royal touch was a powerful political instrument, as touching bodies was a way for monarchs to heal the body politic, especially valuable at times of political instability. Secondly, royal thaumaturgy resisted the many religious changes that occurred in early modern England, through regular changes in the ceremony to adapt to new religious realities—for instance to develop new forms of ‘Protestant royal touch’ (p. 220). Thirdly, scrofula was a capricious and unpredictable disease, for the healing of which the royal hands were widely recommended as an effective cure by physicians and surgeons. These are the reasons why, Brogan argues, kings and queens touched the wounded faces and necks of scrofulous people for centuries. The Royal Touch shows all the complexities of the ceremony as much as of the conflicting debates surrounding royal therapeutics over time. The best and longest parts of the book concern the seventeenth century, because royal thaumaturgy was extremely popular under the Stuart dynasty—Brogan estimates that Charles II and James II touched approximately 100,000 people. This period is particularly well documented, which is why more contextual details and research analysis are provided here, explaining all the practical and logistical issues risen by the organisation of the ceremony, such as managing big crowds of people seeking to be touched. The author explains the procedures that had to be followed by diseased people. Before they could approach the king, they needed to request a certificate from their priest attesting that they had scrofula and had not been touched by the king before—except for extreme cases that needed a second touch. They then had to make their journey towards the king, waiting days, weeks, sometimes months even before being examined by the king’s surgeons who assessed they had scrofula—‘[t]his is an early example of a public, government regulated health process’, Brogan argues (p. 130). The data provided by the author will be especially useful for future research, notably the numbers of people we know have been touched in England in the Middle Ages and early modern period, according to the available evidence. The sources considered by Brogan are vast: archival and printed, visual and material documents, including parish records and certificates, medical texts, touch-pieces, liturgies, prayer books, ballads, diaries and playing cards. The book is beautifully illustrated, most notably by several colour plates of tokens, Angel coins and touch-pieces that were given to scrofulous people by the king after he had touched them. My only regret is that although the sense of touch is central to this story—a ‘key moment of the ceremony’ was ‘the moment of physical contact’ between the king and the ‘ill person’ (p. 139)—Brogan misses the chance to benefit from and contribute to sensory history. Although he mentions contemporary classifications between ‘healthy’ (p. 64) and unhealthy forms of touch, contrasting the ‘manual touch’ of other healers with ‘the sacred touch of the king’ (p. 98), nowhere in this work is the sense of touch and its meanings with regard to the ceremony and healing discussed. Although he acknowledges the central role of the hands in the healing practices described—which, he shows, were sometimes depicted ‘larger the life’ (p. 30) in the images under scrutiny—he has little to say regarding the history of the body. That being said, this detailed examination of royal therapeutics is a much-needed contribution that will be useful to scholars in these and many other related fields. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Social History of Medicine.
Social History of Medicine – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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