- The Royal Touch in Early Modern England: Politics, Medicine and Sin by Stephen Brogan
Historians have long recognized that Tudor and Stuart monarchs touched and apparently cured thousands of people suffering from the King’s Evil. In 1911 Sir Raymond Crawfurd published on the topic. Thirteen years later Marc Bloch brought out Les Rois Thaumaturges. In 1971 Keith Thomas discussed it in Religion and the Decline of Magic.1 However, medical historians are often unsure how to integrate it into their accounts of the period. The royal touch often seems an [End Page 129] embarrassing relic of the political and medical ancien régime, something with no rightful place in a world of case histories, chemical cures, and decapitated kings.
Stephen Brogan’s thorough study, the first book-length analysis of the topic since Bloch, adds considerably to our knowledge. He retraces its medieval origins, its adaptation after the Reformation, and its continuation under the Stuarts. The longest section analyzes the remarkable success of the royal touch after 1660. Charles II touched nearly 100,000 people; James II’s Roman Catholicism did not prevent many coming for monarchical therapy. Although William III abandoned it, there was considerable demand when Queen Anne revived the practice. Brogan carefully dissects the debates about the touch in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, emphasizing the rarity of criticism until the end of this period. The Royal Touch also heads out into county record offices, tracking down parish registers with lists of those sent to be touched. This energetic research underlines one of the book’s central contentions: monarchs were not simply using it to cow their subjects. This was a bottom-up phenomenon.
The Royal Touch concludes that its subject was “a central feature of early modern England,” one that exemplified the interconnections of religion, politics and healing (p. 218). It is hard to quarrel with this conclusion, underpinned as it is by judicious and careful scholarship, but it is a rather anticlimactic ending. It is not, after all, strikingly different from Keith Thomas’s comment forty-five years ago that “there is no shortage of evidence to indicate the steady prestige of the royal touch” through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.2 In adapting his dissertation into this book, the author seems reluctant to expand upon the implications of this centrality for our understandings of the period.
This is a shame. The monograph and the material it contains spark all kinds of questions. First, the book focuses on the rituals of the royal touch, not on what it relieved. The King’s Evil is left unexamined. Brogan tells us that it was/is scrofula, reproducing nineteenth-century medical illustrations to show what it looked like. Even if we leave to one side (as he does) fundamental questions about the historicity of disease categories and diagnostic terminology, the author’s confidence that modern medics would concur with early modern diagnoses is surprising. It contrasts with Bloch’s caution that “the name scrofula was . . . used to cover a large number of lesions of various kinds.”3 It leaves underexplored the relation between the King’s Evil and other disfiguring conditions that preoccupied much early modern health care.
Second, more could be said about the “incongruous combination of the bureaucratic and the mystical” (p. 125) in its administration. The 1680s saw the emergence of pro-forma certificates for the afflicted to carry when traveling to London. Their wording was disseminated in the official London Gazette. This phenomenon could helpfully have been linked to the early modern paper state, to plague passes and to the paperwork of the poor law. In addition, scholars who recall how the Roman Church rapidly embraced print in order to produce indulgences or who are familiar with the meticulous investigations in early modern [End Page 130] canonization processes would surely feel that in early modern societies bureaucracy and supernatural authority often walked hand in hand. They might wonder whether James II’s promotion of the royal touch exemplified the “modernity...